HRAS Interview No. 28: NGO Confronts Abortion Rights at Sea

Last year’s Zika virus outbreak saw a dramatic increase in demand for safe abortions in Latin-American countries.

The virus can cause foetal brain developmental problems, and data from Women on Web, an NGO that provides access to safe abortions in countries where they are not universally available, was used to verify the jump in what activists and doctors had been reporting as an acute need for abortion services. The World Health Organization predicts that the Zika virus will affect four million people globally in 2017, but the associated risks are just one of many reasons why a woman may seek an abortion.

Dr Rebecca Gomperts

Women on Web is an extension of the NGO Women on Waves. Both NGOs were founded by Dr Rebecca Gomperts with the aim of bringing legal abortions and reproductive health services to women in countries with restrictive abortion laws.

Sailing in international waters gives Women on Waves the freedom to conduct abortions legally, so long as the vessel flies the flag of a country where abortion is legal. The NGO has sailed vessels to Ireland, Poland, Spain, Portugal, Morocco and, most recently, Guatemala. In this South American country, abortion is only legal if the woman’s life is at risk. However, around 65,000 abortions are performed there illegally each year.

Human Rights at Sea spoke to Dr. Gomperts about women’s rights and the challenges the NGOs face.

How many abortions are performed around the world?

Dr Rebecca Gomperts talking to media in Spain

There are 43 million abortions taking place every year throughout the world. In the Netherlands and the U.S., one out of five (Netherlands) or one out of three (U.S.) women will have an abortion once or twice in their lifetime.

The Netherlands has one of the lowest abortion rates in the world, because there is good sexual education and contraception is widely available.

The lowest abortion rate in the world is eight per thousand per year in women of child bearing age. That’s translates to a rate of one in five women having an abortion in their lifetime. It is the minimum rate that can be achieved, because contraceptives fail, and that is the most common grounds for having an abortion in the Netherlands. Women used contraceptives, but they didn’t work.

Are women of certain religious, cultural or social backgrounds most affected by lack of access to abortion services?

It doesn’t matter what religion or what race women are. What matters is their socio-economic background and whether or not they can afford to have safe abortions. That’s all: in any country, in any religion.

The problem occurs when there’s no safe abortion services available. This doesn’t prevent abortions from happening; it just creates social injustice, because the women in the country that have money, that are in higher social classes, that have access to doctors there, are able to get an abortion even though it is very expensive. In Brazil, for example, an illegal abortion with a doctor can cost at least $1,500 dollars.

Alternatively, women are traveling to have an abortion. We see this in Ireland. In Northern Ireland, abortion is illegal, so women have to travel to the U.K. An abortion for women that live in the U.K. is free, but it’s not for women who live in Northern Ireland. They need at least 2,000 Euros.

So, it’s the poor women, the women who don’t have access to information, who are actually effected by restrictive abortion laws. That is the heart of this issue. An anti-abortion law is not going to stop abortions, and women who have no means or that are poor will suffer from the consequences. They are the ones that will have unsafe abortions if there is no other alternative.

In the U.K., as well, there’s many women who can’t get to an abortion clinic. They might be in an abusive relationship, or they have kids at home, they can’t take time off work, they don’t have money for a babysitter, they are in rural areas or they have to travel a prohibitively long way to get to a clinic.

How can the situation be changed?

Only when abortion is totally decriminalized can all of women’s rights be respected. We are advocating for making the abortion pill available in pharmacies, like Viagra. Viagra is more dangerous to use then the medical abortion pill, much more dangerous, and it’s readily available in pharmacies.

Why is a medical abortion pill not available in pharmacies? Because it’s effecting women and not men. This is about equal rights.

Medical science should determine how a medicine is available and not criminal laws.

Women on Waves in Morocco

How does Women on Waves help women to have an abortion?

Our yacht can carry eight to 10 people, and we have many doctors that participate and a gynecologist who often goes along.

On board, we have a mobile ultrasound and medicines and all the emergency medicines that are needed.

We launch a hotline and announce the service so that women can call and make an appointment. The ship comes into the harbor, the women come aboard, a maximum of five per day, and then we sail out. There is counseling according to Dutch-European standards, and then in international waters, women will take the abortion pill if they still want to.

They then go ashore, and we keep in touch by telephone. They can do a follow up pregnancy test or come to the ship for an ultrasound if they wish.

The pill can be used safely until 10 weeks of pregnancy.

What are the human rights issues relating to the foetus?

Women are risking their health and their life to have a baby. Giving birth is one of the riskiest events in a woman’s life. In the Netherlands, 10,000 women die from giving birth each year. In other countries, the number is much higher.

Of course, most women want to have the pregnancy, and they want to continue it. But, if you look at the right to life and the right to health of the woman when it concerns the pregnancy, her risk is much greater if she continues it. So, her life has precedence over the foetus, because there is no viable foetus until 24 weeks of pregnancy.

If the foetus would be born at that time, it has some chance of survival significant enough for most people to say that this is when the rights of the foetus become important. Then, for example in the U.K. or Netherlands, one cannot choose to have an abortion any more.

Crew detained in Guatemala

Do you receive support or at least acceptance from maritime authorities in the countries you visit?

No. The port state authorities are quite difficult, although they are often being directed by the government. In Portugal, they stopped us from sailing in, and in Guatemala they didn’t let anyone near the ship or let the crew out. The ship was expelled from port for reasons of state security. So, women needing an abortion are an issue of state security?

We’ve had a couple of case where navies have intervened. That says something! Why would the military intervene with something that is only about women, her body, her rights, her health? I think that this shows we are actually talking about fundamental freedoms.

These government interventions are not physical violence, but I feel like they are a form of intimation which is very violent, especially since the crew and the ship hadn’t done anything.

How do you feel about criticism of what you are doing?

We get a lot of very grateful women. That’s what matters to us. That’s the only thing that is at stake. Any other actions and opinions don’t really matter. It’s the women that need help.

Women on Waves in Guatemala

Do you feel safe in international waters?

Yes, because the law of the flag state applies. The whole world functions like this, right? It’s part of what the biggest businesses do. We are doing the same as any company would do when they are going to countries, for example, because they have another banking system or other tax laws.

We use it for human rights issues and health issues for women, so it’s better.

But it’s not a legal vacuum. It’s just different regulations and different laws around the world that we are using to make sure women are safe. There is very clear agreement internationally that, if a ship is in international waters, the law of the ship’s flag applies. The ship is a piece of ground of that country.

It’s not like we have no law, rather we have to comply with the laws of another country.

Thank-you, Dr Gomperts.

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