I sunk your abortion ship!

A new Dutch law prohibits the controversial boat's operator, Women on Waves, from distributing mifepristone

Published July 29, 2009 8:30PM (EDT)

As founder of the Dutch group Women on Waves, Dr. Rebecca Gomperts has faced more than her share of tough challenges. You see, her organization operated a ship called the Aurora, which docked off the shore of countries where abortion is illegal and invited women on board to terminate their pregnancies. Women on Waves was able to skirt national abortion bans by docking in international waters, where boats are subject to the laws of their home countries. Of course, Gomperts has faced everything from legal battles to death threats. When she arrived in Portugal in 2004, the government greeted her with a fleet of warships.

But nothing compares with the latest news out of the Netherlands. Whereas all physicians had been permitted to distribute abortion pills to their patients, the Dutch government recently elected to restrict those rights to a limited number of licensed clinics. It almost goes without saying that Gomperts' boat was not included in this group. And although the doctor originally planned for Women on Waves to perform surgical abortions aboard its ships, the organization has so far only provided medical abortions. For now, the Aurora has been docked -- and she may have come ashore for good.

The Independent suggests a few possible explanations for the change in Dutch law. For one thing, foreign governments have put a great deal of pressure on the Netherlands to outlaw Women on Waves' work. At the same time, the famously liberal Dutch government has become more conservative, as "recent years have seen a shift in the political consensus towards a more restrictive approach. This has partly been driven by the rise in the crime rate and increasing drugs problems but there has also been a complex shift in the once stable pattern of Dutch politics." So while Gomperts is already beginning to fight the new law in court, she may have her work cut out for her.

Of course, not even all pro-choicers agree with Women on Waves' work. While I imagine Gomperts has saved the lives of many women who would otherwise have resorted to unsafe abortion methods, I (and others) worry that these shipboard examinations may not leave women adequate time to explore their options and receive follow-up care in the event of complications from a medical abortion. (Gomperts' other organization, Canada's Women on Web, which provides the abortion pill by mail to women who fill out a 25-point screening questionnaire, poses even greater safety risks.) Personally, I'm torn. I am tempted to think that Gomperts has done more good than harm, but there's obviously no way to prove that claim with statistics. What do Broadsheet readers think: Are you anxious to see Women on Waves start sailing again? Or is Gomperts' potentially unsafe work beyond the pro-choice pale?

By Judy Berman

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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