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.


Important Note. The subject matter and content of all ‘HRAS Interviews’ represents the views of the interviewee only; they do not necessarily represent the views, opinions or charitable objectives of Human Rights at Sea. In the interests of continuing objective, free, fair and open debate on all topics which have a bearing upon, or closely relate to the subject of human rights in the maritime environment, Human Rights at Sea reviews all submissions to the HRAS Interview site and retains sole discretion whether or not to publish the contents. Human Rights at Sea is committed to transparent and free dialogue independent of all political, religious or other perspectives held institutionally, corporately or individually.  For further information:


The HRAS Interview: Dr. Lynn Simpson – Sailing War Zones and Cultural Conflicts – Part 3/3

Sailing War Zones and Cultural Conflicts [Part 3/3]


Veterinarian Dr Lynn Simpson is a veteran of Australia’s live export trade and a veteran of Red Sea and Persian Gulf voyages delivering sheep and cattle to the Middle East. She speaks to HRAS about her experiences sailing with a mix of cultures on board through regions where their countrymen were at war.

What cultural issues were there with a mix of nationalities on board the livestock carriers you worked on?

It used to be quite tricky sometimes if you had a Muslim crew and we would trade with a country like Israel. There would be Palestinians on board who obviously had a deep-seated problem with stepping on what is considered Israeli soil. I had Palestinian officers who were lovely, they were really rational, they would speak to the Israelis who’d come on board for work, and they would be very professional. But you wouldn’t get them to step off the gangway; no way.

We might be on a voyage where we go to Saudi on the way up the Red Sea and then we go into Israel. So you go from the extreme of Saudi’s Muslim culture to Israel. I was a spectator, but I’d try to calm them down, because they get fired up. Saudi is interesting because it doesn’t seem to have offered much support to the Palestinians, in the Palestinian’s view. They were often angry in Saudi about that, and then we’d get to Israel and they’d be angry about Israel. Once you get them out to sea again, everything was fine.

We’d even been boarded by the Israeli defence force a couple of times. The captain had to stay on the bridge. The chief officer had to stay in the engine control room, an armed guard on each of them, and the rest of us, about 80, were bunched up in the forecastle; three guys with I think M16s pointed at us in the 43 degree heat.

They held us there for a couple of hours, and they taunted us. “Sit down!  Stand up!  Sit down!  Stand up!  Sit down!  Stand up!” You’re sitting on a scalding hot steel deck. They eventually took us single file into the accommodation and sat us all down on the floor in a room, taking us out one by one to interrogate us – just intimidatory tactics. It not a normal occurrence but, it’s happened more than once. It’s a complete nuisance and welfare risk when you have tens of thousands of animals to care for.


Did you have other encounters with the military?

We were going through the straits of Hormuz one day in 2003, during the second Gulf war, and we had lots of military aircraft and warships around. One time I had a chopper hovering at the side of the ship, watching me kill sheep, only metres away. I still remember the stunned expressions on the pilots’ faces. I don’t know how many they’d watch me kill. I think I had about 20 that I had to dispose of because they were considered diseased with “scabby mouth” and we needed to get rid of them before our first port.

I looked up and saw them, but I couldn’t see any insignias on the chopper, so I didn’t know who they were. I didn’t care. I could see the guns pointing at me, and I just disappeared into the ship.

Working in a war zone is always a depressing and potentially dangerous thing. As a seafarer, you don’t always know where you’re ship’s going to go, you sign up to the ship, you sign up to go wherever it goes.


Sometimes, cultural differences led to victimization on board. What was your experience of this?

Actually, I didn’t realise how quickly my veterinary skills would get sidelined a little bit. I needed to know more about culture, religion and politics to be able to get my job done properly through the day. So, for example, I had to learn all about the Indians essentially giving Bangladesh independence, but from a Bangladeshi point of view, they just gave them swamplands.

Then there’s the cast system, and the Bangladeshis are very submissive to the Indians. One company I worked for had Indian officers and Bangladeshi crew, and at one stage we had a Pakistani captain. The three just didn’t mix, and it was just awful, to the point that I could see very clearly that the Bangladeshis were all tremendously miserable.

On some voyages, we’d be going through the Persian Gulf in the middle of summer, 55 degrees, humidity in the high 80s, low 90s and this one captain, turned the air-conditioning off in the accommodation. It was an old car carrier, so, it was just one long accommodation space, but he turned the air conditioning off from where the officers’ space stopped and where the crew started.

Not only did the crew have to work down on decks which were stinking hot and full of ammonia gas and CO2 all day, but because the animals generate their own heat there was added heat. The crew would come up for their so-called respite at the end of the day, and there was no air conditioning. Some slept on open decks under the stars, still hot, but sometimes they caught a breeze.


Why did the captain do that?

Because he was a jerk.  He was just a complete jerk.

I think the captains are the linchpin to welfare at sea. If you’ve got a good captain who’s got a decent sense of a moral compass, you’ll find the crew are generally looked after and much happier and easier to work with. You get a better outcome for the ship and the company and the animals. If you’ve got a captain that’s for some reason a pain in the neck or a power-tripper, it can be quite difficult.

The captains who caused the greatest difficulty to management and animal welfare were generally relief captains who did not understand how different a livestock carrier is to manage compared to a non-live cargo. The stress levels are through the roof for them, and it was rare that they would return: thankfully.

They were usually so stressed they made life difficult for both the crew and the livestock. If they had the sense to put their pride aside and take advice from others on board, they coped, but were a rare breed, and are to be commended.

The experienced and competent senior officers on a livestock ship are cool under pressure, respect input from people with differing training and expertise and would likely find a “normal” ship boring. I’ve sailed with and learnt so much from some great seafarers.

I’ll always be grateful to them.


How did conflict at home affect crews?

On most of our ships, we didn’t have internet access personally, so communication with home was a difficult thing. Satellite phones are way too expensive for crew to use too often, but when we pass close to land or join the convoy to go into the Suez Canal, there’s a window of connectivity, and everyone’s phones go crazy. Usually news from home brings on a mixture of smiles and melancholy.

One time, there was a lot of Pakistanis on the phone for the whole canal transit, a lot of worried faces, and as we came out of Port Said one of our older crew members went down the gangway and off the ship into a small pilot boat. A few people waved him goodbye. One of the crew members told me: “He’s going home. The Pakistani government has bombed our village.”  Most of the crew’s houses had been bombed, 80 percent were either destroyed or wrecked in some form.

The man taken off the ship’s entire family had been killed, and no one had the heart to tell him; they apparently just told him his wife was sick in hospital. Then we had to forget our land lives, or deaths and continue to tend the animals. There is no option to slow down and grieve on a live export ship.


What impact did cultural difference have on shore time?

When crew go into port in different countries, especially westernised countries, if they’re associated somehow with the live export ships, there’s every chance that they’ll be vilified and possibly verbally attacked about animal welfare issues. But the converse side to that is a lot of them don’t get shore leave and if they do, it’s only for an hour or two. So the fact that they’re exploited to the level that they get bugger all short leave protects them from being vilified by people who know what’s happening to animals as a result of the trade, but don’t understand the physical and personal sacrifices these men make everyday of their contracts to provide care for the animals. The crew don’t understand why they are being cursed at, I tell tem when they ask me that people don’t get the real facts, don’t take it personally, ignore them. I know this well, as this happens to me too, even to this day.

I was teaching quite a few of the crew English, just casually on deck every day, in return they would teach me some Pashtun or Arabic. I’d have a few of them come up to me and go, “Oh, doctor, doctor, I have this word. Can you please explain the meaning and how to say it properly?” and they’d just give me a little piece of paper. Each day I’d have a discussion with them, and they wanted to practice their English. It was nice.

At one stage, one of the loveliest captains awkwardly called me to his office, and he says, “Can you please stop teaching them English?” and I’m like, “Yeah, okay. Why?” and he says, “Because we’ve had too many crew jump ship and leave.” I said: “Oh, okay. I didn’t put that into their head. They weren’t asking me, “Where is the train station?” It was an awkward situation and conversation to have because so many of them were jumping ship in Fremantle, Australia. After that, they didn’t get shore leave in Fremantle.

Thank-you Lynn.



AFFECTED BY THIS STORY? Review our Managing Traumatic Stress publication here or go to our publications page to review all our free publications for download. Hard copies can be purchase from The Nautical Institute here.



Important Note. The subject matter and content of all ‘HRAS Interviews’ represents the views of the interviewee only; they do not necessarily represent the views, opinions or charitable objectives of Human Rights at Sea. In the interests of continuing objective, free, fair and open debate on all topics which have a bearing upon, or closely relate to the subject of human rights in the maritime environment, Human Rights at Sea reviews all submissions to the HRAS Interview site and retains sole discretion whether or not to publish the contents. Human Rights at Sea is committed to transparent and free dialogue independent of all political, religious or other perspectives held institutionally, corporately or individually.  For further information:


The HRAS Interview: Dr. Lynn Simpson – Maritime Vet: ‘Captains, Caring and Consequences’ Part 1/3

Captains, Caring and Consequences [Part 1/3]

dr%20lynn%20simpsonThere were times when captains wouldn’t allow veterinarian Dr Lynn Simpson access to the ships gun to euthanize suffering animals on livestock carriers at sea. There was a fear that, in the wrong hands, the gun, or the barbiturates typically used in practice on land to ease animal suffering, could turn into a means for crew members to commit suicide. The master instead kept these things under lock and key.

Lynn, who now suffers PTSD as a result of her experiences at sea and as a whistleblower ashore, spoke to HRAS about the challenges faced by the crews on livestock carriers.

You have been criticized by animal welfare organizations and concerned individuals for not using standard veterinary euthanasia techniques, instead having to slit animals’ throats or use blunt trauma to the head. What were the captains’ concerns that put you in this position?

When it comes to barbiturates, there’s two reasons: It would probably be quite expensive to do the amount of euthanizing that we do with those drugs, so, there’d be a financial burden. Rarely were they carried. That’s one component, but it was never one that was argued back at me. The big concern was that some captains and companies did not want a euthanasia solution on board, because they were fearful that crew would get hold of it, and they would either use it to attack each other or to suicide.

That meant I had to cut animal throats. It was demoralising as a vet that you’re not even allowed the minimal equipment that our Australian legislation says we should have, or that we are trained to use to meet our Hippocratic oath, which put simply and ironically in the case of the Live Export ships is “do no harm”.


What were living conditions on board like?

One of the interesting things about ours ships compared to the majority of merchant vessels is that we have a crew of 50 to 100. It’s a bigger crew than most ships, and considering most of them are conversions, it’s a bigger crew than most of them are originally designed for. So, often, the accommodation has been retrofitted, and it’s quite cramped. There’ll be four in a cabin, and there might only be a metre between the bunks. Often there’s no ensuite; the crew will use a communal bathroom.  This makes it interesting when you’re in a port and you see the same prostitute go from room to room without visiting the bathroom first.

Photo Credit: Dr. Lynn Simpson

Some of the ships have really rudimentary bathrooms. A lot of the time it was a spout out of the wall with chipped or missing sharp tiles and filthy. One ship I sailed on, the water was always brown as a result of rusty water tanks. They hadn’t been treated properly, hadn’t been looked after, so, you wash in this stuff that looks like opaque Fanta and you’re thinking “I don’t know if I’m cleaner or dirtier now.” Sadly this was one of the newer purpose built ships.

The filthy conditions resulting from working with animals are one of those things you get acclimatised to. The decks are filthy. There’s no two ways about it. We all get covered in shit all day every day. There are repercussions where people get sick, be it the runs or eye infections or sores. The accommodation often smells of musty clothes and shoes trying to dry for the following days work.


What other work stresses do livestock carrier crews face?

The crew works seven days a week, and the majority of non-officers worked ten month contracts. I had one engineer who told me he’d been on 19 months, and he was starting to go a little bit crazy. He was actually the electrician, and they couldn’t find a replacement for him. It was a ship that had dodgy electrics, and we had lots of ventilation blackouts. So, not only was he on there for a very long time, it was really stressful for him because the ship performed poorly. Of course, the minute we lose ventilation, any animals below main deck have got about an hour to live. So he’s under a lot of pressure.

Having a live cargo, regardless, was a stressful thing, because every time we hit heavy weather we knew that it wasn’t just us. We could bunker down in the superstructure and stay safe, but there were animals out there, and we were responsible for looking after them. There were times when we would go on deck when on other ships the crew would not have been allowed to. They would’ve been told to stay inside and keep all the sea doors shut. Instead we walked across slippery rolling decks to get to access points to get further down into the ship and tend to the animals needs. I guess we pushed a lot of envelopes that most ships wouldn’t just because we have live cargo.


What about pay?

Knowing the disparity of money was something that was depressing for a lot of the crew. They knew that the Australian stockmen were on much higher wages than they were. If, for example, we had a British captain, he was on a much higher wage than the Filipino chief officer. Whilst it wasn’t something that people dwelled on, it was something that came up as, “we’re getting exploited,” or “now that I’ve done so many months at sea, I can actually start to make money because I’ve paid off my agent’s fee.”


You have made headlines internationally now for whistleblowing about animal welfare on live export ships, but your role as whistleblower started in support of seafarers at sea. How did that come about?

A lot of the crew are so reticent and submissive about reporting problems with a ship’s maintenance or management that they often asked me do it. They knew that I had to make reports anyway, so they’d discretely take me to different areas of the ship and show me something that was actually maybe structurally dangerous. I’d find a way to link it up with animal health or simply crew safety, and then I would report it to the relevant authority.

In one case, upper tier decks had been collapsing – they’d collapsed on an empty voyage. Luckily the men were not in there cleaning at the time or they would have been squashed. If the decks had been full, they would have just pancaked the sheep below.

Often third world crew don’t have the confidence to complain, and I suspect it’s because they worry that they’ll be seen as whistleblowers and won’t get another contract. Many only financially subsist as it is. It was the least I could do for them given my position.


That did indeed happen to you when you were removed from your position with the Australian government after filing a report that showed pictures of what it was like for animals on live export ships. That, combined with your experiences at sea, has left you with PTSD. How did it develop?

As a vet, you’re trained to save lives, and you’re taught how to use these wiz bang gadgets, MRI machines and ultrasound etc. Then you go out on a ship that’s covered in rust, and shit and death and essentially given rudimentary medications and essentially have to bring your own equipment or improvise. I’ve stitched many a wound with dental floss, ridiculous when you carry a multi million dollar consignment.

With PTSD, what they say is essentially it doesn’t have to be one massive traumatic event, it can be a compounding of pressures and stress. Everybody has a metaphorical stress bucket with a drainage hole, and when your bucket is overwhelmed, and the drainage does not meet the fill rate, that’s when you can succumb to PTSD.

I believe that what I was being exposed to, and I presume a lot of the other seafarers that I’ve worked with, all day every day, was often filling that bucket, especially if you’re a caring person. Every now and then, you would hit a point that you felt overwhelmed.

Photo Credit: Dr. Lynn Simpson

Such a day for me was when I had to kill 55 Damara lambs. They’re just so cute, but it wasn’t because they were cute, it was the frustration and the wastefulness of the fact that they should never have been there. There is legislation in place that should have protected them from ever being born on that ship, to keep pregnant ewes from such long voyages. Grown men cried; some tried to hide lambs. It was heartbreaking.

I killed them, and I was just raging. I was so angry. I went up to my cabin, and I knew I just needed to take ten minutes out away from any more stimuli. I had a friend in Bahrain – our ship was in Saudi Arabia at the time –and she had been a counsellor in the past. She’s always been a really good person to talk to, and she understands shipping. So, I phoned her, and she just was great. At the end of my tirade when my bucket was less overwhelmed, she very calmly said, “You do realise you probably have PTSD?”

I was more aware of what I was doing after that, and I think you learn coping strategies when you work in extreme environments. People in the military and emergency services certainly do.

Then there was another incident where I had to kill 22 fully-grown cattle one night without a gun. The Russians had confiscated it, and I’d run out of sedation that was useful, and I had to try to knock cattle unconscious, by blunt trauma over the head with a fire axe. When I see footage like that on TV, everyone is saying, “Oh, look at those bastards!” I’m thinking: “Yep, that was me. I was getting paid to do that by the Australian organisation that I worked for under Australian legislation.”

But, it wasn’t until I was actually working with the government to improve animal welfare, and I was told you can no longer do your job in any capacity, because the exporters don’t like you, that I just went into a catatonic state of depression. For over two months, I was just completely uncharacteristically not myself. I’d sleep 23 hours a day, and I wouldn’t eat. I was put on antidepressants; they made me suicidal, so I took myself off them. I had massive feelings of hopelessness, wastefulness, as in you feel like you wasted your time, and your training, and all the effort you put into improving something.


Are you troubled by dreams?

I have dreams all the time. In my case, because a lot of my stuff is now in the legal forum, I spend my nights dreaming about counter arguments. I’m not sitting there thinking, “Oh, those animals with their gushing blood; it was all so gruesome.” There’s been a bit of that, some dreams about being hunted by pirates, but very little. Most of mine involves me arguing with someone about an injustice, and then I wake up with an anxiety attack and a heart rate of 120.

We hear the classic story of a soldier who has flashbacks of a battle, an explosion, or something awful, but I think we need to start understanding how many people who are essentially civilians are affected. People with challenging jobs are at risk, seafarers to start with, because of the social isolation, the remote work environment, the deprivation of a lot of things, be it the psychological or provisional.


How are you feeling now?

I struggled when I was first diagnosed: “What does this mean for me?” and then somebody explained to me that it’s essentially a psychological fact that only well-meaning, good people get PTSD. So, essentially, there is no shame in it, and I pretty much wear it as a badge of honour. In fact, I should get t-shirts made, because I now know so many people with PTSD, and every single one of them is just the most decent human being I’ve ever met.


Are you ostracised by colleagues?

One thing that is very interesting is that, whilst openly you are ostracised by your colleagues and ex-colleagues as a whistleblower, some do still covertly make contact, help and keep you informed of actions that may be of use to your situation. They may not be outspoken about it, but many believe and agree in what you have said, done and stood up for. I suspect they are concerned for their own jobs.

Organisations that persecute whistleblowers should be aware that they may have only persecuted one person and their opinion, but popular opinion may concur with that persecuted individual.

Thank-you Lynn.

The opinions expressed herein are the author’s and not necessarily those of Human Rights at Sea.



AFFECTED BY THIS STORY? Review our Managing Traumatic Stress publication here or go to our publications page to review all our free publications for download. Hard copies can be purchase from The Nautical Institute here.

Part 2: ‘Being the Only Woman Onboard’ – Coming soon.