Abortion Ahoy! The Unique Story of Abortion Rights Being Fought for on the High Seas

16/1/2022

Introduction to abortion worldwide

“…abortion is a fact of life. Women have always had them; they always have and they always will. Are they going to have good ones or bad ones? Will the good ones be reserved for the rich, while the poor women go to quacks?” – Shirley Chisholm

One of the main principles of the egalitarian is to educate and provide information –in this article I hope to give some much needed attention to some little known groups. If you’ve never heard the name Rebecca Gomperts, the group Women On Waves, or Women On Web, I’m glad you’ve finally come across them here. But first I’ll give a quick overview of opinions and laws on abortion worldwide. So feminists strap in and get your strap-on as we fuck our way through one of the most hotly discussed topics in women’s rights: abortion.

It’s not hard to recognise that abortion is a highly contested issue surrounding feminism, with both men and women up and down the UK agreeing if conditions X Y and Z are met, unsure, and disagree with termination of a pregnancy. According to an article in the Telegraph, new research commissioned by Marie Stopes International have found that as of 2020 nine in ten UK adults now identify as pro-choice. This is also in line with recent YouGov tracker polls which between 2019-2021 have consistently showed that over 85% of adults in the UK think that women should have the right to an abortion and of the remaining 15%, 10% said they ‘don’t know’. Although interestingly, when asked on the availability and time sensitivities of allowing abortions (i.e. how far into a pregnancy should someone be allowed an abortion, discounting medical emergencies) only 7% said that the 24 week limit should be increased. A round 44% think the 24-week limit should remain, around 27% think it should be reduced, and around 20% don’t know. So, in the UK at least, the answer is pretty clear, a resounding yes to abortions with some small-print included.

In the US on the other hand a 2020 Gallup poll tells a very different story. The poll shows 48% of Americans self-identify as pro-choice, and 46% pro-life, with 6% having fallen into the mixed opinion, don’t know, or other. Clearly the debate on abortion in the US is still neck and neck and as contested as ever, with the Pew Research Centre suggesting the possible reasons for this being an increase in partisan politics, various religious affiliations across the country, and even education levels – for now those who are pro-choice - should cling onto Roe v Wade as tight as possible.

But what about the rest of the world? Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, and those non-native English-speaking friendly folks outside the Anglosphere?. Unfortunately, women’s rights to an abortion don’t fare so well across South America, the Middle East, Africa, and South-East Asia. In 26 countries abortion is prohibited altogether, even when the woman’s life is at risk, and a further 39 countries only allow abortions to save the woman’s life (all of these countries are located within the previously mentioned geographies: South America, the Middle East, Africa, and South-East Asia). This means that around 27%, or 450 million women around the world who are of reproductive age have next to no access to abortion in 2022. This is made even worse by the fact that a further 14% (or 240 million more women) across 56 more countries only have limited access to abortions, based on health or therapeutic grounds. The recent trends in the USA and Poland are a cause for concern over more restrictive abortion laws too. However there is hope. Over the course of 2021 Mexico’s Supreme Court declared that an outright ban on abortions is unconstitutional, Benin has allowed for a greater access to abortions, and Thailand also voted to allow abortions in the first trimester –something which was previously punished with fines and even prison time. Since 2000 there have been over 30 countries that have expanded women’s legal access to abortions. One of these countries, Portugal, held a referendum in 1998 in which just under 51% of people voted ‘No’ to decriminalise abortion during the first trimester, with a gap of under 50,000 votes. Another referendum was held in Portugal in 2007 on whether to legalise abortion up to 10 weeks, and this time the ‘Yes’ vote one with just over 59% of the vote. This is an example of the difference ten years can make and stands as a reminder that change is always possible.

Women on Waves

There is one woman who is not only fighting hard, but also outside of the box, to make sure women have the information and access they need to have safe abortions – and this isn’t just in countries where abortion is legal. Rebecca Gomperts studied medicine and visual art after high school and after graduating medical school became a doctor, eventually specialising in reproductive health services. She has also travelled to many countries to provide healthcare to people who otherwise might have no access to it. As a reminder, around one-quarter of pregnancies end in abortion, with nearly half of those (26 million) classed as unsafe abortions. This is where Rebecca Gomperts steps in.

Gomperts had already spent time as an abortion provider up to 1997, and after returning from a trip through South America with Greenpeace in 1997-98, she had decided what her next venture would be. She decided to set up the charity Women on Waves(WoW), which would be a clinic set up on a ship that could sail the world providing non-surgical abortions as well as information on abortions. Her ambitions were finally achieved when, in 2002, the Dutch Health Minister gave WoW permission to give women up to 9 weeks pregnant the pill RU-486 – mifepristone, which when taken alongside misoprostol, is 97% effective at inducing an abortion during the first 9 weeks of pregnancy. By using a ship, they could pre-release information about their travel schedule as well as how to get in contact with WoW, where they would sail to countries where abortion is illegal, dock, and allow women to board their ship. Now for the clever part. The ship would then sail approximately 12 miles (20km) away from any boarders so that they were in international waters, and because the ship was registered in the Netherlands only Dutch laws applied. Luckily for the women, abortion is legal under Dutch law. Gomperts had found a way to bring safe abortions to women who may have taken drastic and unsafe actions because of laws in their respective countries to get what so many millions of other women have as a right, an abortion. The Ship visited Ireland on its maiden voyage in 2001, further going on to Poland, Portugal, Spain, Morocco, Guatemala, and finally Mexico in 2017.

A fantastic documentary released in 2014 called Vessel covers these expeditions. With a camera crew on board the Women on Waves’ ship, the Aurora, filming the crew and Rebecca Gomperts as they travelled to multiple countries trying to provide free, safe, legal abortions. The documentary features real received messages from women from these countries who are trying to reach out for medical help and medical advice. Hearing the desperation and stress from the women, partners, family members and friends makes for some tough scenes. However, WoW also faced antagonism and difficulties throughout their trip. They were met with demonstrations and aggressive behaviour in Poland, in Portugal, the Portuguese Navy prevented the ship from docking (which led to a court case at the European Court of Human Rights), and in Morocco the port they’d organised to dock at was shut down. More recently Women on Waves have set out on expeditions to Guatemala and Mexico, in 2017, with Women on Waves again being removed by a military force, the Guatemalan army.

A later addition to this feminist activism is Women on Web, established as the second wing of Rebecca Gomperts’ efforts. This is a website focusing on the dissemination of information and media to women around the world explaining how to perform safe abortions without the need for a medical professional or legal sign off – by taking the combination of mifepristone and misoprostol at home before the 9th week, or first 63 days, of the pregnancy.

Seeing this sort of passionate and unique global activism that has reached mainstream news and sparked debates whilst also providing tangible help, gives me hope for grassroots movements. It shows that change in abortion laws around the world is possible. And it shows that the expansion of women’s rights where it’s needed most is an achievable goal. Abortion was only legalised in the UK in 1967 – within my parents’ lifetime – now, 54 years later, 9 in 10 people in the UK agree this should be the case. Perhaps by the time our children’s generation are adults it will be 9 in 10 across the globe. And if that’s not activism in action then I don’t know what is.

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