Rebecca Gomperts, founder of the pro-choice activist group Women on Waves, has been labeled a “pirate,” a “cowboy doctor” (and in need of “some psychiatric help” by an Irish antiabortion group). Since 2001 her Netherlands-based nonprofit, Women on Waves, has operated a mobile clinic on a ship that sails to countries where abortion is illegal — and while the organization has attracted plenty of critics along the way, it has also been recognized for helping advance women’s reproductive freedom across the globe, most recently by lobbying to bring about legalized abortion in Portugal. With a woman dying from an illegal abortion every six minutes, according to the group’s estimate, and abortion laws growing ever more politicized, is direct action, like that taken by Women on Waves, the new activist frontier? We called the captain of the “abortion boat” at her Amsterdam office to test the waters.
Just this week, Portugal legalized abortion within the first 10 weeks of pregnancy. You went to Portugal in 2004. Where will Women on Waves be sailing next?
We hope to sail again within a half a year, but I cannot tell where exactly we plan to go. We would love to go to South America. There are a lot of changes happening there now, with Mexico City legalizing abortion, and Colombia too, and we’d also be very interested in going to Argentina. We have to see if we can pull it off. The obstacles in front of us have been growing and growing since we first sailed in 2001 [to Ireland].
So your success has actually made your work more difficult?
Well, sometimes you have to change strategies. We’re just a very small group of people. We’re still struggling with the Dutch government. We have to go to court again because we have a license that is so restrictive that we cannot really work with it. Basically, we work in a loophole of the Dutch law, which means we can only do abortions up to six and a half weeks of pregnancy. But the fundamentalist Christian government proposed to change the law so that these early abortions will also fall under license requirements. And they want us to have a contract with a hospital wherever we plan to sail, among other requirements. So we will not be able to work anymore if the law goes through.
But in 2004, when we sailed to Portugal, our minister of foreign affairs had to intervene because the Portuguese government stopped us with warships. So our campaigns still have an effect on a governmental level.
We are also looking at the possibility of getting a ship registered in another country, but because [abortion] has such a political effect, you have to know who the supportive and unsupportive politicians are, to be able to inform the supportive ones to make sure that people are also well informed. And that always requires a lot of work. We have done that work already in the Netherlands. But if you go to another country, you have to understand the whole political landscape again in a different context. Abortion may be fundamentally a health issue but it’s so politicized that we cannot ignore politics.
No matter where you go?
American antiabortion groups are exporting their antiabortion rhetoric and campaigns all over the world. So it doesn’t matter where you go, it becomes an issue.
What is Women on Waves working on these days?
Our main activity is guiding women through e-mail, telephone and online about doing safe abortions themselves. In the U.S. we don’t know how things will turn out with the new high court. But I think we will see that more and more states will get more and more restrictive with abortion laws — and that women will indeed resort to doing abortions themselves at home, with mifepristone. It can be done safely — as long as the women have the proper information.