The Voyage of the Radical Abortionists
Women on Waves sail the seas to perform terminations in countries where the practice is illegal.
The topic of abortion is and will always be a contentious subject. Some believe it’s a woman’s right to choose what she does with her body, and others are opposed to the idea of ending a life, no matter how young that life is.
Over 25 countries across the globe have laws against abortion, whatever the circumstance. 37 countries agree that if the mother’s life is at risk from continuing with the pregnancy, it may terminated, so in case of rape or incest the woman has no options. The only choice for many of these women is to seek an illegal termination, putting themselves in dangerous situations.
Witnessing the horror
During her residency in Guiana, 25-year-old Dutch physician Rebecca Gomperts saw the consequences of many backstreet abortions and wanted to make a difference, however she could.
“Abortion was legalised in Holland in 1984 but I was too young to be involved in the struggle to get it legalised. But working in a small hospital as a trainee doctor in Guiana changed this. There were women coming in severely bleeding. Somehow at the time I didn’t make the connection with the illegality of abortion.” — Rebecca Gomperts, The Independent.
Once she was finished in Guiana, Gomperts set sail on the Greenpeace boat, Rainbow Warrior II. She witnessed the struggles of many women, who were going through pregnancies they didn’t want and those who’d already gone through with an unsafe abortion.
Many of the women Gomperts encountered had been raped and had subsequently been shunned by their family and the wider community. They were dealing with rejection from their loved ones while also experiencing the psychological trauma of unwanted pregnancies and sexual assault.
A heroic plan
In 1999, Gomperts launched Women on Waves, a non-profit made up of volunteers, aiming to help women, wherever they were. A mobile clinic named the ‘A-Portable’ was built to be strapped onto boats and offered counselling, contraceptives, sonograms, and abortions.
“Telemedical abortions create the opportunity to stand up against repressive abortion laws. A safe abortion with pills gives us control over our own bodies, lives and futures. I am grateful to be part of this liberation movement”
The clinic made its first voyage to Ireland in 2001. Filled to the brim with IUDs, abortion pills, condoms and morning-after pills, the boat had Gomperts at the helm. The team already had over 200 appointments booked for terminations from residents of the historically anti-abortion country, and they were ready to help.
On their way to Ireland, Gomperts got word from the Netherlands, where the charity was registered, that Dutch parliament had ruled that the non-profit wasn’t licensed to offer abortions, meaning if Gomperts went ahead with any of the terminations, she would be arrested. The team was able to offer counselling, advice and contraceptives but no surgery was to take place during their visit.
Barriers became a common occurrence for Women on Waves and in Guatemala, their vessel was nicknamed the ‘boat of death’ by a local official. Over 60,000 illegal abortions were being performed in Guatemala per year and female residents were desperate for help from Gomperts. Instead, they were met by angry locals, who didn’t want them docking their boat. Often met by confrontation, Gomperts and her team have often had to dock in the middle of the ocean and ferry women onto the ship on a smaller vessel.
Taking it online
In 2005, Women on Waves expanded its online presence and Women on Web was launched. The same premise applies, but instead of women having to dock a boat, they can now be sent whatever they need via the post.
WoW reported that in just ten months they received over 6,000 requests, asking for help with pregnancy termination, with many of the requirements coming from American states where abortions are illegal.
In the first 15 years of Women on Web, they answered over 1 million emails and provided medical abortions to over 100,000 women. The volunteers speak 17 languages between them and became the first organisation to offer telemedicine for abortions.
There’s a growing need for the organisation, but with that requirement comes press, and more recently Instagram and Facebook have begun blocking their accounts and others who support the cause.
The World Health Organisation reported that between 2015 and 2019, there were over 70 million abortions around the world, and a staggering one in three were performed dangerously.
The first issues came when Covid-19 began, and isolation made it increasingly hard for women to get the help they needed. Though the accounts have now been reinstated, there are still issues with other countries blocking their accounts.
With many countries still criminalising abortions, there will always be a need for Women on Waves and Women on Web. However, the charity still needs to raise funds and spread its message.
In 2020, Rebecca Gomperts was listed in the Time 100’s Most Influential People. The magazine wrote;
“In this moment of fear and uncertainty, Gomperts is a beacon of hope, standing up for the principle that safe abortion is a human right.”
The data provided by the organisation is shows that telemedicine abortions are a feasible service to offer a safe and less invasive procedure for early gestation.
To read more about the cause and how you can help, visit their website www.womenonweb.org.