Each year, 47,000 women worldwide die from unsafe abortion. To put this into context, every nine minutes a woman dies from an abortion which is not without danger.
While abortion is perhaps one of the safest medical procedures in the world in countries where it is legal, it is extremely risky in countries where it is illegal. From the estimate 20 million women who undergo illegal abortions every year, millions of people continue to suffer the lasting and sometimes permanent health consequences of their termination. Infertility and chronic pain are just two of the possible symptoms.
For this reason, Dr. Rebecca Gomperts has dedicated her entire work and life to helping women terminate their pregnancies safely in countries where it is illegal. From flying drones filled with abortion pills to sailing the seven seas to deliver safe medical abortions in international waters, the 49-year-old Dutch doctor will stop at nothing to help women in need.
Since founding Women on Waves, a nonprofit organization of doctors and activists, in 1999, Gomperts’ tactics have constantly evolved. In addition to defying the law of the land by boat, she also runs Women on the Web, a website and courier service that delivers abortion pills to women around the world. Having encountered everything from ever-changing legal frameworks to impassive border authorities and stormy seas, Gomperts is always quick-witted.
But what brought about that first eponymous lightbulb moment? When did Gomperts first decide to sail to the Far East with a boat full of sachets of mifepristone and misoprostol (the two essential drugs you need to have an abortion). The Independent spoke with Gomperts to find out.
Who is Rebecca Gomperts?
Born in Suriname, a country on the northeast Atlantic coast of South America and a former Dutch colony, Gomperts moved to the Netherlands when he was three years old. Growing up in a small village in the south of the Netherlands, her international awareness took root in her from an early age. At that time, she was still unaware of the struggle many women faced in accessing medical abortions, but after studying medicine and attending art school, that quickly changed.
“Abortion was legalized in the Netherlands in 1984, but I was too young to get involved in the fight to have it legalized,” she recalls. “But working in a small hospital as a trainee doctor in Guyana was a game-changer. There were women who were bleeding badly. Somehow, at the time, I hadn’t made the connection to the illegality of abortion.
Later, Gomperts assisted on the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior II in South Africa where she was exposed to countless stories of women’s suffering and their barriers to accessing reproductive services. This, in turn, sowed the seeds of Women on Waves.
What is Women on Waves?
To put it simply, Women on Waves is centered around the idea of a floating abortion clinic: the ship moves to pick up women in need and transport them to international waters. There they provide them with the pill which they can safely take after reaching dry land at home. She explains that he needs to stay separate from Women on Web because of the legal risks he takes.
It was not until 2001 that Women on Waves made its maiden voyage to Ireland. Taking on board two Dutch doctors and a Dutch nurse, this particular mission was thwarted due to a certification error.
Since then, Women on Waves has traveled to Morocco, Spain, Poland and Portugal when abortion was still illegal. The group had planned to go to Ecuador, but Gomperts says the ship got stuck in the storm and he never made it.
What impact at Women on Waves actually had?
While it’s hard to quantify such things, Gomperts has seen concrete legislative changes through his direct action. She says it’s mostly to do with their campaign in Portugal. In 2004, the government refused to allow the organization entry and physically obstructed their vessel with two Portuguese Navy warships. In turn, he ran aground twelve miles from Figueria de Foz, a small vacation town, in the middle of Portuguese waters.
“But the campaign caused outrage in Portugal,” Gomperts says. “After the elections, the abortion law was changed and it was legalized. Although I think it would have happened eventually, I really think Women on the Waves had a catalytic effect.
How does it harness the power of the World Wide Web?
Created in 2005, Women on Web is an online service that allows women to request a medical abortion by post after consulting a doctor online. “We get about ten thousand emails a month,” Gomperts says. “We have women on the helpline who respond to emails in different languages.” Their emails came from 123 countries, to be exact.
Brazil is a key country that uses this service. Since the advent of the Zika virus, Gomperts says the demand for abortion pills has increased dramatically. However, unfortunately, this good work has now been abruptly interrupted. “Unfortunately, since the new year they started stopping the customs service and stopping all the packages,” Gomperts says sadly. “We had to stop providing aid to Brazil. Now we tell them where they can travel to where abortion is legal. i.e. Cuba, Belize, Uruguay, etc.
Interestingly, she says Women on Web also receives quite a few inquiries from women in Britain. These women cite a range of reasons for their requests. As well as complaining about the long NHS waiting list, many are in abusive and coercive relationships and have no way to access abortion clinics. “Or we will ask a 16-year-old girl to contact us who is from a religious family who cannot leave the house without being chaperoned and who are also illegal undocumented women,” she adds.
Who are the people behind the statistics?
For Gomperts, it’s the individual stories that ultimately motivate her. “Every day we get so many emails from women who are desperate for help and desperate to have found someone who can help them, whether they have money or not,” she says. . “Those who have money can always travel to another country or find a good doctor, but for many women this is not possible.”
A number of particularly heartbreaking emails are featured in Ship, a recent documentary that traces his trajectory and that of the charity. From an American soldier serving in Afghanistan who was raped and unable to access abortions, to a woman in Ireland whose husband controls her income and cannot afford black market prices, to a woman in Qatar who will be whipped to death if authorities find out she is pregnant, Gomperts has been contacted by women around the world.
What are drones used for?
In recent years, Gomperts has also become famous for her drone work. Most notable is the campaign in Poland – where abortion is severely restricted – in the summer of last year. “Drones fly abortion pills from country to country,” she explains. “Like the ship, it’s using the different laws and jurisdictions to do it legally and in doing so it’s trying to invent a new way of delivery. It’s not viable in the long term yet, but it’s test drives. to see how it works.” So far so good – the campaign in Poland has been a success. The medicines delivered by drone were flown from the German border safely to Poland where they were collected.
Nevertheless, it left some of the Polish activists in hot water. “Polish authorities have contacted all Polish participants in the campaign and brought them to the police station for questioning. We don’t know whether they will take legal action or drop it. is an example of intimidation of activists.
What about legal logistics?
One thing Gomperts is always careful about is making sure she navigates her way through the cracks in the legal system.
“We never break the law,” she said evenly. “People are allowed to import drugs for their use – that’s how it works. It’s sent with a prescription from one of our doctors. But of course the law isn’t static. We’re pushing l interpret laws and place them within a human rights framework.
To put this into context, the World Health Organization lists abortion pills on its list of essential medicines that all individuals have the right to access. That said, the Dutch doctor has spent more than a decade fighting international legal battles to defend her work and continues to do so, remaining steadfast in her commitment to women’s reproductive rights around the world.