Dutch abortion boat to sail no more
Following changes to the Dutch abortion law, the organisation Women on Waves has decided to cancel all upcoming trips of its so-called abortion boat. Opposition to abortion is growing, says director Rebecca Gomperts.
A decade ago, Rebecca Gomperts (1966) had a vision. With her organisation Women on Waves (WoW) she would run a floating clinic that women with unwanted pregnancies all over the world could turn to for help. Gomperts saw herself as the "abortion captain". "I figured we would sail from country to country and help x number of women per day."
At one point Gomperts envisaged an entire fleet of abortion boats registered in the Netherlands. They would anchor in international waters and carry out abortions, distribute medication and train local staff.
For Gomperts it was her way to right an enormous wrong: the 20 million women who undergo illegal abortions every year worldwide, and especially the 68,000 women who die as a result each year - a plane crash a day.
Ten years later, as WoW prepares to celebrate its anniversary on September 4 in Amsterdam, expectations have been much lowered. Following recent changes to the Dutch abortion law, WoW has cancelled all upcoming trips of its abortion boat.
On May 18, the Dutch government decided to limit the distribution of abortion pills to specially approved clinics only, including for early abortions (up to 16 days after the last menstruation). Until now, WoW was allowed to provide the pill for early abortions based on a written permission from then Dutch health minister Els Borst.
Gomperts: "We had planned to campaign this year with a yacht off the coasts of Nicaragua, Chile, Brazil and Argentina. Our legal system states that what is allowed under Dutch law is also allowed in international waters. So women boarding our ship did not have to fear prosecution. Now they risk prosecution in their own country if the Dutch health inspection rules that we are working outside the law. That's a risk we couldn't take, so we had to call off the campaign."
[Editor's note: On Monday July 27, the Dutch health inspection asked the public prosecutor's office to prosecute Women on Waves for distributing abortion pills off the coast of Spain in October 2008.]
WoW is preparing a lawsuit challenging the the government decision. " Under the influence of the Christian democrats and the [orthodox Christian party] ChristenUnie everything is getting more restrictive," says Gomperts.
Myth and reality
Gomperts' dream of a fleet of abortion boats never materialised. It took until October 2008 for the organisation to get permission to use a converted sea container to perform curettages under certain conditions (up to 12 weeks pregnancy). Boats were used for campaign purposes, but no abortions were ever carried out there.
"The abortion boat is a myth," says Gomperts. "There are people who think we provide practical help all over the world. Of course it's a pretty sight: a ship entering a harbour full of women saying: abortion is a right. And then there will always be people wanting to stop the boat. The result is a symbolic fight that speaks to the imagination."
Reality is more prosaic. "Our only real strategy is letting women know that there is such a thing as the abortion pill. They have to know that there is medication available for pregnancy termination."
Even the mobile abortion clinic, set up in a container by the artist Joep van
Lieshout ten years ago, will no longer be used. "It is not up to modern
standards anymore. We need something lighter that will allow us to move
Rebecca Gomperts. Photo Women on Waves
The mobile clinic has been lent to the Boijmans Van Beuningen museum in Rotterdam where it will possibly serve as an exhibit. "It is a unique part of Van Lieshout's oeuvre – feminist art."
On the surface Rebecca Gomperts hasn't changed: she is still the slender woman with the penetrating eyes and a passion to defend women's right to abortion.
"I still get upset by the fact that a woman's right to self-determination is not respected when it comes to abortion. It is a great wrong and it is responsible for women being oppressed and dying unnecessarily."
But in her personal life there has been a drastic change. The woman who ten years ago said she had made a conscious decision to remain childless, is now the single mother of a three-year-old boy and a four-year-old girl.
"Motherhood has made me realise even more that raising children should be a choice. It demand everything of you, and that's fine as long as you really want it."
Gomperts became an activist when she joined Greenpeace in the late nineties. As the ship doctor on the Rainbow Warrior II she was touched by what Latin-American women told her about the unwanted pregnancies, the prostitution and the abuse that resulted from the ban against abortion. It was the seed for her later career.
What have been the biggest successes in ten years of Women on Waves?
"That Portugal, following our campaign, organised a referendum which led to abortion being legalised there."
But the single-most important achievement, she says, was the founding of Women on Web. Through the organisation's website women in countries where abortion is illegal can now order the abortion pill online. A doctor asks 25 questions and checks for contraindications before writing out a prescription. The pills are then mailed in a discreet envelope. For legal reasons, Women on Web is registered in Canada, but the pills themselves come from a variety of countries.
Gomperts: "For many women this is huge progress. It is innovative, it really helps women. Women in countries where abortion is illegal live under tremendous stress. They go to unreliable websites where they are offered fake pills. There is also have a help desk where women can talk about their worries. These women need help. And anonymous support over the internet is quite effective. There are no taboos online; there is no shame to talk."
Do these women have to pay for these pills?
"There is a voluntary contribution of 70 euros. But many women can't afford that, so about 15 percent is sent the pills free of charge."
How many pills are sent out each month?
"It was about 150 per month in early 2007. It must be up to several hundred by now."
She is reluctant to talk about Women on Web, and she stresses that she is not the organisation's spokesperson.
"It is such an important project, helping women in more than a hundred countries. I don't want to say anything that could jeopardise the project. A lot of people want to thwart its efforts."
Is it true that Ireland is blocking the pills?
"Women on Web has determined that the pill is being stopped by Irish customs. Apparently they screen all packages. I don't know how they do it, but it has become too pervasive to ensure safe distribution."
Wouldn't it serve your work better if the media talked about Women on Web more?
"No, because Women on the Web works through the internet, not through the traditional media."
She gets out her laptop to demonstrate. "What would you type if you were pregnant in, say, South America? Aborto ayuda [abortion help]?" Google returns a list consisting only of anti-abortion websites. " Aborto pastilla? [abortion pill]?" The second website returned by Google is Women on Web. "You see? It works."
Did you know George Tiller, the abortion doctor who was murdered in Kansas this year?
"Yes, I knew him fairly well. I had dinner with him several times. In the US, anti-abortion groups have multiplied their activity since Obama became president. Before Bush was their good friend and they were able to do much the legal way. Now that Obama is protecting women's right to chose the number of threats and cases of harassment has tripled. And those American clubs are training their allies in Europe. We see a lot of aggression now at protests in countries like Poland and Ireland."
Do you feel threatened here in the Netherlands?
"No, I'm not afraid here. I never look over my shoulder. But the anti-abortion activists are becoming stronger here as well. They copy tactics from the US, like distributing little foetus dolls. They also have more money than ten years ago. The foundation for the protection of the unborn child is subsidised by the Dutch state. They're always ticking up posters and they're very active in theschools. They have more money to influence public opinion than we do. That's worrisome.
"The other day I was giving a lecture at a school in the Bijlmer [a heavily immigrant part of Amsterdam, Ed.] I was shocked by the anti-abortion sentiment among young immigrant girls there. And the youth activities of the Evangelical broadcasting corporation draw tens of thousands of visitors. These are signs that lots of things are changing in our society. Opposition to abortion is growing."
You are especially controversial abroad?
"Yes, in 2007 a mass prayer was said for me in Malta. I had been invited by a political group to give a talk in a hotel in the capital. The public could hardly get inside because of the hundreds of anti-abortion activists praying outside the hotel holding candles. They were verypersevering: when I went to bed they were still there."
Have you become more understanding towards your opponents over the years?
"If you believe that every life has to be protected I can imagine that you would be very passionate about that. Uncompromising. But it bothers me that they have no respect for people who thinkdifferently. Anti-abortion activists feel that everybody should act the way they think they should."
Is a rapprochement even imaginable?
"No, I think it is impossible for proponents and opponents of abortion to ever come together. We're talking about two entirely different philosophies here. There is no room for discussion. To me, the fact that they want to limit other people's ability to make their own decisions will always be unacceptable."