Marking 10 years of shipboard abortions

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.

No women were able to come aboard for abortions, but Gomperts said the publicity generated helped win over Portuguese public opinion in a referendum that voted to legalize abortion in 2007. Early in 2009, WoW won a case at the European Court of Human Rights against the Portuguese navy’s action.

"We have been able to help a symbolic number of women in order to create a better awareness about the social injustice that is created by illegal abortion and the suffering that is caused for women," she said. "The ship is never a solution ... . It has been a very important tool to mobilize women's organizations, and other groups, doctors and lawyers, around safe and legal abortion." As it approaches the anniversary, WoW is confined to port. Recent legislation put forward by the Dutch government has restricted the distribution and use of the abortion pills that are used by the group.

Gomperts fears the legal changes could leave women who board the ship vulnerable to prosecution in their own countries, so WoW has postponed a planned voyage to Nicaragua, Chile, Brazil and Argentina while it seeks clarification from the Dutch courts, a process expected to take at least a year.

Gomperts is worried the new law reflects growing anti-abortion sentiment in the Netherlands, which legalized the practice in 1981.

The Christian Union party, which says Dutch abortion laws go “against one of the most elementary values: the protection of life,” joined the country’s coalition government in 2007 and has pushed for a tightening of the rules on abortion. Dutch authorities are already considering legal proceedings against the WoW for distributing abortion pills off the coast of Spain last year.

"A lot of the groups that are against abortion rights have substantially more financial means, while a lot of the women's organizations have had funding cut," Gomperts complained. "The anti-abortion groups teach in schools; they are very active in the media."

Gomperts said WoW's main task now is education, helping women understand how they can use the medication to terminate their pregnancies.

“That’s what our focus will be, really, to train people and to make sure that the information about medical abortion gets into the hands of the women themselves,” Gomperts said.

She remains adamant, however, that if the group's legal fight against the new Dutch restrictions is successful the abortion boat will sail again.