'Abortion ship' sails into Christian storm

Vessel that made waves by offering termination services in pro-life countries may be sunk by new Dutch law

Even the law of the land has never been able to stop Rebecca Gomperts.

The Dutch doctor has been a fervent pro-choice campaigner for more than 10 years, and in order to extend those rights to women who would otherwise be denied them, she hit on an ingenious plan: anchor a ship outside the territorial waters of "pro-life" countries, and distribute abortion pills to women who wanted them from there.

Since only Dutch law would apply to a Dutch ship in international waters, her opponents could do nothing to stop her. The plan seemed watertight. But now her work could be over. A draconian change in the Dutch law looks set to force the "abortion boat" back to port.

Rebecca Gomperts has started a court action to challenge the new law, which she says represents "a growing tendency towards restriction and intolerance" in Dutch politics.

Dr Gomperts, 43, has become both a global heroine and a global figure of hate since she announced in 1999 that she would use Dutch law and the international law of the sea to provide "floating abortions" to women in the Third World but also in anti-abortion European countries, such as Portugal, Malta and Ireland.

Although her original intention was to offer off-shore surgical abortions, her ship has, in fact, supplied only "abortion pills" to be used in the very early stages of pregnancy.

Previously, Dutch women could obtain abortion pills from their doctor and bring on a miscarriage at home in the first two weeks of pregnancy. This is also legally possible in France and several other EU countries. But under a law passed by the Dutch coalition government in May, the prescription and use of abortion pills has been limited to approved clinics.

"The change in the Dutch law means that women in other countries would no longer be protected and could be prosecuted if they came to our ship," Dr Gomperts said yesterday. "We do not want to take that risk. We have suspended the voyages that we planned this year off the coasts of Nicaragua, Chile, Brazil and Argentina."

Dr Gomperts insists however that the Women on Waves campaign is not over, despite the setback. "We have started a legal challenge to the new Dutch law. I am confident that we can have it overturned as an unfair restriction on the liberty of women. If so, we will resume our voyages."

For many years the Netherlands was the paragon of a liberal and permissive society, a model to some and a dire warning to others. But 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.

Dr Gomperts says that she believes that the new abortion law was driven by party political or coalition pressures, rather than by a genuine change in the Dutch consensus. For the past three years the Dutch government has been a hybrid coalition of large centre-right and centre-left parties and a small Christian party, the Christen Unie or Christian Union. "There is a growing tendency towards restriction and intolerance since the Christian party came into government," Dr Gomperts said.

Asked if she thought that pressure from other countries to stop the activities of Women on Waves may have influenced the new law, she said: "No. I don't think it's that. I think this was all about internal Dutch politics."

As a further sign of a shift in Dutch government attitudes, the country's health inspectorate this week urged the state prosecution service to take action against Women on Waves for distributing abortion pills off the coast of Spain. Dr Gomperts' "abortion ship" visited the Spanish coast last October – before the new law was passed.

Women on Waves originally envisaged a whole fleet of abortion ships constantly cruising the world, offering surgical abortions by trained doctors. A movable abortion surgery was constructed out of a ship's container.

In fact, although the legend of a globe-trotting, clinical "abortion ship" persists, Women on Waves never carried out off-shore, surgical abortions. "For various practical reasons, but also because the abortion pill proved to be a far more useful tool, we have never performed a single clinical abortion," Dr Gomperts said.

Women on Waves, she said, was always partly a "symbolic struggle" – a way of drawing attention to the "calamitous" effect across the world of restrictive anti-abortion laws. "Every year, 20 million women have illegal abortions. Every year 70,000 women die as a result. That is a death rate of one in every 300 abortions. The death rate from the abortion pill, by contrast, is one in 500,000," she said. "Our real strategy has been to publicise the existence of the abortion pill and, where possible, to provide it directly."

Dr Gomperts used to be the ship's doctor of the Greenpeace vessel Rainbow Warrior II. It was during that vessel's visits to Latin America, she says, that she first became aware of the suffering caused by unwanted pregnancies and illegal abortions in the developing world.

However, she claims that her greatest success was to change the abortion law in an EU country. "The visits of our ship helped to start the campaign which led to a referendum decision to legalise abortion in Portugal in 2004," she said.

Dr Gomperts is also involved in another organisation, the Canadian-registered Women on Web, which makes abortion pills available by mail – sometimes for free – to women in countries where it is illegal. A doctor asks 25 questions over the internet to check for counter-indications. The pills are then sent in a plain envelope.

"For many women this is huge progress," Dr Gomperts said. "Women in countries where abortion is illegal live under tremendous stress. They go to unreliable websites where they are offered fake pills. There is also a [Women on Web] help desk where women can talk about their worries. There are no taboos online; there is no shame to talk."

Right to life: Where abortion is illegal

* Abortion is illegal, or severely restricted, in more than 120 countries, including many where sharia is enforced and some where Christian "pro-life" groups have seized the political initiative.

* European countries where abortion is illegal include Malta, where it has been banned since 1981, and Ireland, where a referendum in 1983 upheld "the right of the unborn to life".

* Nicaragua is among the countries where the abortion ban allows of no exceptions, even where a minor has become pregnant through rape or giving birth could result in the death of the mother.

* In parts of Nigeria under sharia, women who have aborted a pregnancy can be convicted of culpable homicide and sentenced to death.

Suggested Topics
News
John Travolta is a qualified airline captain and employed the pilot with his company, Alto
people'That was the lowest I’d ever felt'
Life and Style
healthIt isn’t greasy. It doesn’t smell. And moreover, it costs nothing
News
i100

Other places that have held independence referendums
Sport
Jonas Gutierrez (r) competes with Yaya Toure (l)
football

Newcastle winger is in Argentina having chemotherapy

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Blossoming love: Colin Firth as Stanley and Emma Stone as Sophie, in 'Magic in the Moonlight'
film

Actors star in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

News
peopleThe Times of India said actress should treat it as a 'compliment'
News
news

Watch this commuter wage a one-man war against the Circle Line
News
We are phenomenally good at recognising faces; the study showed that humans have been selected to be unique and easily recognisable
science

Human faces unique 'because we don't recognise each other by smell'

Arts and Entertainment
You've been framed: Henri Matisse's colourful cut-outs at Tate Modern
artWhat makes a smash-hit art show?
Property
Home body: Badger stays safe indoors
lifeShould we feel guilty about keeping cats inside?
News
A male driver reverses his Vauxhall Astra from a tow truck
news

Man's attempt to avoid being impounded heavily criticised

Arts and Entertainment
US pop diva Jennifer Lopez sang “Happy Birthday” to Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, president of Turkmenistan
musicCorporate gigs become key source of musicians' income
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
filmsDaniel Craig believed to be donning skis as 007 for first time
Student
The Guildhall School of Music and Drama is to offer a BA degree in Performance and Creative Enterprise
student

Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum
theatre

Returning to the stage after 20 years makes actress feel 'nauseous'

Arts and Entertainment
Pulp-fiction lover: Jarvis Cocker
booksJarvis Cocker on Richard Brautigan
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke and Pharell Williams in the video of the song, which has been accused of justifying rape
music...and he had 'almost no part' in writing it
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Portfolio Analyst - Prince2

£45000 - £50000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client, a glob...

Project Co-ordinator - Birmingham - Permanant

£20000 - £25000 Per Annum Plus excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions...

Head of Maths

Negotiable: Randstad Education Group: Head of Maths position at a prestigious ...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Birmingham - Huxley Associates

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Huxley Associates are currentl...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week