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Marking 10 years of shipboard abortions

Women on Waves, launched in 1999 to give women abortions at sea under Dutch law, feels threatened.

Founder of Women on Waves Rebecca Gomperts stands in the entrance of a container intended to function as an onboard abortion clinic on the Dutch ship Aurora, rechristened the Sea of Change, in the Scheveningen harbor June 11, 2001. Women on Waves celebrates its 10th anniversary in September 2009. (Jerry Lampen/Reuters)

AMSTERDAM — The idea behind Women on Waves could hardly have been more provocative.

In 1999 the Dutch group launched a plan to send ships to countries that ban abortion so women could come aboard, sail into international waters and terminate their pregnancies under the liberal laws of The Netherlands.

A decade on, the group’s vision of a fleet of floating abortion clinics never quite materialized. Now, changes to Dutch law mean the contentious voyages are currently suspended pending the results of a court battle.

However, as she prepares for WoW's 10th anniversary in September, the group's founder is far from downbeat.

"We've been able to help thousands of women by giving them information about how to do safe abortions themselves" with pills, said Rebecca Gomperts. "That's extremely important work that we've been doing over the years." While political developments have hampered the movement, Gomperts said medical progress has made abortion easier and safer, with the widespread availability of pills like mifepristone and misoprostol. The use of such drugs in so-called medical abortions removes the need for the traditional intrusive procedures which, when carried out illegally by backstreet abortionists, kill almost 70,000 women every year, according to Women on Waves.

WoW used its ships to distribute the pills and in 2006 helped set up an independent, Canadian-registered organization, Women on Web, which offers advice on the pills and enables them to place orders over the internet. The year after its creation, Women on Web was sending pills to 150 women every month. Gomperts said she doesn’t have current figures because the Canadian group is separate from the Dutch group, but she estimated that several hundred women a month use the service.

Here's how it works: Women who call are put in touch with a doctor, who gives them an online consultation of 25 questions. If the doctor is satisfied, she or he sends the caller the pills. The patients are then asked to donate 70 euros to Women on Web.

The ships and their high-profile sailings to countries such as Spain, Ireland and Poland have played a significant role in stimulating debate and raising awareness of abortion issues in those countries, Gomperts said, rather than in fulfilling their original role as floating clinics.

"The ship is a symbol, more than anything," said Gomperts, who is a medical doctor, explaining that only a handful of women were ever given abortions on the WoW voyages.

"I don't know the exact number. It's never enough to be a real response to the needs of women in these countries,” she said.

Reports on the organization’s website say 10 women were given medically induced abortions during a 2003 campaign off the Polish coast while four had them last year off Spain. Legal problems prevented any abortions being carried out on the debut sailing to Ireland in 2001 although the group says it had requests from about 300 women at the time. A tropical storm left a WoW boat unable to continue a trip to Ecuador in 2008.

Gomperts said WoW's biggest achievement was perhaps a 2004 campaign in Portugal where warships were deployed to prevent the Dutch ship Borndiep from approaching the coast.