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How a Group of Women Sails Past Countries' Restrictions on Reproductive Rights

Thanks to Women on Waves, women in international waters are receiving instructions on how to have safe, drug-induced abortions.

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According to the Guttmacher Institute about 40 percent of poor women capable of bearing children receive Medicaid coverage. The majority of these women already have children or are pregnant, as most adults without children are not eligible for coverage. Given that the average monthly income for a family of three with Medicaid is $930, paying out of pocket for an abortion could mean spending nearly half of that monthly check. The drugs for abortion can also be purchased illegally on Internet pharmacies. Outside the U.S., access involves little more than a trip to the drugstore.

In many countries where abortion is illegal, women can still purchase Misoprostol from a pharmacy for as little as $1 in Pakistan, for instance, and $12 in Morocco. Gomperts said it might ultimately be easier for women in Africa to terminate their pregnancies than women in Missouri where abortion is technically legal. This is not to say that the struggle for reproductive rights is easier for women outside the U.S., but rather, that in countries with less regulation, side-stepping the law is simpler and safer in this case.

Julia Ellis-Kahana, a rising senior at Brown University, has been working as Gomperts’ assistant since October. Ellis-Kahana considers Gomperts her mentor and said working for her is like “working for superwoman.” As an American, Ellis-Kahana said she was deeply affected by the ease with which she was able to purchase Misoprostol in Morocco, where abortion is illegal.

“I was totally shocked by how easy it was to the extent that the next day I went to a different pharmacy and did it again,” Ellis-Kahana said. “After I got back to Amsterdam I saw an article that the last abortion clinic in Mississippi might close, and that made it more real for me. I had this realization that women in the state of Mississippi would have no access, while a week earlier I was able to walk into pharmacy and buy a medication that could be used to induce a safe abortion.”

With its ship campaigns to Ireland, Portugal, Poland, and, most recently, Spain in 2008, WoW intends to show women that they too can access Misoprostol as Ellis-Kahaha did, and use the drug at home. Announcing the ship’s approach must be done carefully and quietly; a phone number printed on the side of the vessel serves to announce its arrival and the group lets the press do the rest. The physical space of the yacht, Gomperts said, can only help so many women. Its purpose is as much to spread the word about medical abortions, as to be a site for abortion services.

“The ship has become a symbolic gesture because it’s visible and so unapologetic,” Gomperts said. “Offering abortion services without shame, where nothing is hidden, is powerful. People are always apologetic. They don’t talk about it. There’s a lot of self censorship even in countries where abortion is legal, and in some cases, abortions don’t happen because doctors don’t want to talk about them and are so afraid to be prosecuted.”

When Gomperts founded WoW in 1999 medical abortion had not yet been approved in the Netherlands, and she planned to provide surgical abortions on board. Before the group first set sail in 2001, however, medical abortion was approved, reshaping WoW’s procedure and, in some ways, its mission. Not only would WoW aim to provide medical abortions to women living in countries where it is illegal; it would also disseminate information to teach women how to perform at-home medical abortions themselves.

“The revolution of medical abortion and the empowerment it has given is huge, but when we first published information on how to do an abortion yourself in 2004 we were so scared,” Gomperts said. “There was a legal investigation, but we didn’t break any laws. The investigation concluded that if we used generic names we were free to give information.”