Making waves

Around the world, access to an abortion is governed by the laws of individual countries, which effectively decide a citizen’s access to safe medical care. Unfortunately, many countries enforce laws that restrict this access to what they deem ‘appropriate’ emergencies, which, while variable, often revolve around the questions of risk to maternal life, physical deformation of the child, or if the fetus results from sexual assault.

Many pregnant women in distress who don’t meet these requirements will attempt to seek out other routes in order to recieve the abortion they desire. However, most of these other routes are unsafe and pose significant health risks as well as potential prosecution. In some countries, namely Morocco, it is estimated that as many as 800 illegal and unsafe abortions are performed daily. Worldwide, 13 per cent of pregnancy-related deaths are related to botched abortions, according to the World Health Organization. Unfortunately, given their unregulated and unsanitary nature, they often end in death or other permanent health complications.

In an attempt to raise awareness for the high toll of these abortions, Dutch physician Dr. Rebecca Gomperts founded the nonprofit pro-choice organization Women on Waves in 1999. The aim of the organization is to provide women who live in countries bound by restrictive abortion laws with the reproductive health services that they need, especially in the form of non-invasive and non-surgical abortion services. Since its inception, Women on Waves has also provided assistance in the forms of contraceptives, counselling, education, and hotlines where women can call to learn about all matters of women’s health.

By circumventing repressive abortion laws through providing medical care on international waters, Women on Waves aims to “prevent unsafe abortions and empower women to exercise their human rights to physical and mental autonomy.” Upon the founding of the organization, Dr. Gomperts designed  a portable gynaecology unit named “A-Portable” with the Dutch design company Atelier Van Lieshout. A-Portable operates as a mobile clinic and can be easily installed onto ships made for international travel. Every ship carries a minimum of one specialized abortion doctor, one gynaecologist, and one specialized nurse, in addition to other trained personnel. According to the organization, the standards under which each ship operates exceed the requirements set forth by Dutch law and other EU regulations.

In 2001, Women on Waves made its maiden voyage onboard The Aurora  to Ireland, where abortion is illegal. Since then, the organization has travelled to Poland in 2003, Portugal in 2004, and Spain in 2008. As a reflection on the influential work of Women on Waves, an official poll in Poland found a 12 per cent increase in support of legalized abortion.

Women on Waves’ most recent journey to Morocco this past Thursday, October 4, was somewhat unsuccessful. The Moroccan Health Ministry intercepted the ship as it tried to dock in Smir, and naval forces were deployed, while authorities on land shut down the harbour and restricted access for both journalists and women seeking aid. As it was evident that the Moroccan government was not going to budge, Women on Waves launched what it called its “Trojan Horse.”

As the ship remained at sea, it revealed its Moroccan hotline number women can call for information on receiving a safe, Dutch government-sanctioned medical abortion through the use of the drug misoprostol, which is on the World Health Organization’s (WHO) List of Essential Medicines. Arthrotec, the brand name of misoprostol available in Morocco, can be used until the 12th week of pregnancy.

Legally, ships equipped with A-Portable are able to provide safe, surgical abortions up to the end of the first trimester, or 13 weeks, as governed by Dutch law. When on international waters, Women on Waves is only subject to the regulations of its origin country, the Netherlands, and thus can perform abortions as regulated by the Dutch Ministry of Health, Welfare, and Sport.

Women on Waves has not always had such liberal reign. In 2004, the Dutch health minister ruled that each boat must be within 25 kilometers of the Slotevaart hospital when performing an abortion, should the crew encounter an emergency. Fortunately, this decision was then overturned by the Law Court of Amsterdam in 2008, and Women on Waves was restored to its original legal status in providing abortions anytime during the first trimester.

It has been shown through polls done by Women on Waves that after each visit of their boat, the general opinion toward legalizing abortions takes a turn for the positive. This is especially beneficial to women of lower socio-economic status as they are the most likely to use unsafe methods resulting in severe complications. As such, considering the lives of women with unwanted pregnancies, one cannot deny that access to safe abortions is one of the most fundamental issues of social justice.