The Good Ship Rebecca

In December 2004, Dr. Rebecca Gomperts gave a speech at a Buenos Aires cultural center. Anti-choice activists gathered to protest. They proffered pamphlets and hoisted signs. Some scuffled and threw punches. Gomperts, the Dutch physician who sails to anti-choice nations teaching women about the abortion pill, RU-486 (mifepristone) and, in rare cases, administering the drug in international waters under the pro-choice laws of her ship's Dutch flag, was labeled an "assassin" by angry protesters.

All in a day's work for Gomperts. And all controversy that she converts to activist currency.

Gomperts, the confrontational founder of Women on Waves and one of the world's most hardball activists, spoke to AlterNet recently from her group's headquarters in the Netherlands. She talked about confrontations with Portuguese warships, Polish right-wing nationalists, the growing threats to reproductive rights and the global backfires of Bush administration family planning policies. The 39-year-old doctor has joined the high-profile likes of Gloria Steinem and Planned Parenthood's Gloria Feldt in an uphill battle to secure reproductive rights in the face of theocracy and overreaching conservatism.

A conversation with Gomperts reveals a tendency for deep understatement ("Yes, some of the people in Argentina got a little excited"), and passion filtered through concise, unwavering, seemingly unemotional responses.

Her mind is a motor. Ask her to pause, and the mental clutch engages for a nanosecond, releases, wraps up unfinished points, and then takes another call, before coming back to the subject of dead mothers and daughters. Like 27-year-old Gerri Santoro, mother of two, who died in 1964 from a botched illegal abortion. She was found dead in a Connecticut motel room, naked, squatting over bloody rags, left to die by an abortionist who used borrowed medical tools and a textbook as guide. The grizzly police photo of Santoro's corpse is posted on Gomperts' website, a crude reminder of the undeniable reasoning that drives her: "Women are dying. Women are dying because of illegal abortions. And the death of these women is preventable."

Between 1950 and 1985 most developed countries liberalized their abortion laws. But at least 25 percent of the world's population still lives in countries where abortion is illegal, mostly in Latin America, Africa and Asia. The Alan Guttmacher Institute, a think tank, says 350 million couples around the world lack information about contraception and modern methods of family planning, even as some 80 million unwanted pregnancies occur around the world each year, according to Planned Parenthood.

According to the World Health Organization, unsafe abortions kill more than 78,000 women each year.

"I must be honest," Gomperts says, "I am quite concerned with developments around the world, and this is especially true in the United States. Anti-abortion stances of Bush have had a tremendous effect worldwide, especially as he exports abstinence-only sex education."

Art Before Activism

A self-described "artist in first instance," Gomperts studied art but took to medicine as a career. She eventually specialized in radiology, which didn't fulfill her. It was during a stint at a Dutch abortion clinic that she found her calling. It wasn't, she says, a political decision. She was fascinated by the work. And she wanted to save lives, make obvious differences, and later, as an activist, to bear witness. "I felt for the first time that I was really making a difference for women," she says.

The idea to deliver abortion services on the high seas came to her in 1997 and '98, while she was volunteering as a doctor on the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior II.

"We had gone to Mexico and the women told me terrible stories," she recalls. "One woman had an unwanted pregnancy and was looking for someone to help her. She had been raped but couldn't denounce the rapist because she was looking to have an illegal abortion. Another girl I met, around 20, had lost her mother when she was 12 years old. The mother had been pregnant for the fifth time and died from a backstreet abortion. The 12-year-old then had to take care of her brothers and sisters together with her father.

"I saw that these women were in so much need, were so abused, so vulnerable. So my original thought was that it would be a real service ship that would serve twenty or thirty a day. Eventually, though, it became more an advocacy than service delivery. The reality is that it is hard to find funding."

In 1999, Gomperts founded Women on Waves.

The group's funds come from private donors, "smaller foundations," and contributions from the internet. Half comes from Europe, the other half from the United States. There's not enough money to buy a ship, so WOW's sailing campaigns have relied on rented ships, with small, all-women crews. Controvery has kept her from actually performing many sea-based abortions, but it's made her a media magnet, giving her a soapbox to talk about reproductive rights and fire social debate.

Making Global Waves

In 2002, Women on Waves' first campaign took them to Ireland, the European nation with the toughest abortion laws. After an invitation from two Irish pro-choice NGOs, the group sailed to promote reproductive health services and administer RU-486 pills outside Ireland's territorial waters. The group also hoped to publicize the fact that some 6,500 women from the Irish Republic travel to Britain for abortions each year.

But confusion reigned. The Dutch government suggested that administering abortions might be illegal. The two Irish NGOs were slammed with calls. They got scared.

"All the attention made our groups in Ireland get quite worried," Gomperts says. "They were overwhelmed by number of phone calls requested. It was panic, basically. I don't blame the local groups though. We leave, but they have to live there."

In 2003, the doctor set her sights on Poland, where Catholic authorities raised from a Communist vacuum outlawed abortion in 1993. Since then, WOW says between 80,000 and 200,000 women seek illegal abortion services within Poland and many are forced to travel abroad to obtain abortions (60 percent of the women in Poland live below the poverty line).

Sailing on the ship Langenort, Gomperts' group arrived to find their access to the small fishing village of Wladyslawowo blocked by angry protestors waving flags and fists and throwing paint and eggs.

"They were basically right-wing nationalists being paid by a conservative political party – the League of Polish Families (LPR)," she says.

After a two-day standoff, Polish authorities escorted the ship to a safe spot in the harbor. Eventually, Gomperts was able to sail outside Poland's territorial waters and administer abortion pills. Press attention was fixating.

"That campaign definitely had an effect," she says. "Before we arrived, a poll showed 44 percent of Poles favored legalization. Two weeks later that number had gone up to 56 percent."

Politics In Portugal

By 2004, Gomperts had a reputation – and a new target. In Portugal, performing an abortion with the consent of the woman is punishable by a three-year jail sentence, and the same sentence can befall the woman having the abortion. In 2001, 17 women were tried for having illegal abortions and a nurse who performed abortions was given a seven-and-a half-year sentence. (The WOW website says at this moment two women and one nurse are on trial in Setubal.)

Problems arose when WOW's ship, the Borndiep, tried to enter Portugal's territorial waters. Defense minister Paulo Portas (a Catholic) sent two warships to block entry. (Ironically, one of the ships was named F486 Baptista de Andrade, which Gomperts believes was no coincidence.)

The media jumped all over it. The Dutch minister of foreign affairs condemned Portas' decision, as did many Portuguese officials. Lawmakers in the European Parliament even joined in, condemning the move and calling for debate over illegal abortion.

With the physical path to Portugal blocked, Gomperts turned to the airwaves and the Internet. On the Portuguese talk show, SIC 10, she talked about misoprostol and announced that the drug's protocols could be found on WOW's website. (Misoprostol is a stomach ulcer medication, also known as Cytotec or Arthrotec, which induces abortion and can be purchased over the counter in most countries, even where abortion is illegal. Using misoprostol alone terminates a pregnancy in more than 80 percent of patients. In nations where abortion is legal, RU-486, or mifepristone, is used in combination with misoprostol, with a success rate of 95 percent.)

During and after the visit, Portuguese journalists pumped out some 700 newspaper articles and the WOW web site logged 2.5 million hits in 21 days – three quarters of them coming from Portugal and most visiting the pages containing the misoprostol protocol.

Controversy had again turned to currency, and, says Gomperts, "Legal abortion was resurrected as a political agenda."

Gag Rules and Attitudes

Women On Waves' next trip – Gomperts refuses to speculate when it might be – will be to Argentina, where economic problems have caused more women to seek illegal abortions. But legal problems could stand in the way. In June 2004, after three years of wrangling, the Dutch health ministry restricted how far WOW could travel and still remain under the regulatory status of abortion clinics (only 25 miles from a hospital in the Netherlands). Lawyers are appealing the decision.

The group also faces strategic limitations. "We can only go to countries where you have a strong pro-choice or women's movement," says Gomperts. "We build on their work. We don't go in solving problems. We go in and serve as a catalyst to public opinion. We make the problem of illegal abortions visible. You can only do that with the help of groups on the ground."

Attitudes are key.

"Many women say they are opposed to abortion but they believe that another person can't make the decision," she says. "If you ask people, 'Who should decide: women, church, government or doctors?' the majority of women say they are the only ones in the position to decide this. People have to come to terms with the fact that you cannot force women to carry an unwanted pregnancy. Women are willing to do anything to end it."

Gomperts finds the political climate in the U.S. especially troubling. She notes that President Bush's abstinence-only stance is a head-in-the-sand approach that offers nothing to the victims of rape or girls forced into marriage. Particularly troubling is that Bush has reinstated the global gag rule, which clamps off U.S. family planning assistance for any foreign NGO that provides abortions or abortion counseling, even if it does so with its own funds. The result, she says, is more unwanted pregnancies; more poor women without contraceptives; less prenatal care; fewer abortion services; and more senseless deaths.

The Bush administration has also held up $34 million in congressionally appropriated aid from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), which deals in voluntary family planning assistance in 140 countries. The Alan Guttmacher Institute, quoting UN officials, says the funding clog will mean 2 million unwanted pregnancies per year, nearly 800,000 abortions, 4,700 maternal deaths and 77,000 infant and child deaths.

Gomperts finds another posture held by the United States particularly symbolic: On May 10, 2002, at the United Nations special session on children, the Bush administration stood alongside Iran and Iraq – two "axis of evil" nations – to eliminate references to "reproductive health services and education" as a right held by the world's children.

Against that backdrop, Dr. Gomperts plays hardball in the hardest of activist games. When, in 1869, Pope Pius IX decreed that conception renders a soul from the first moment, he planted a seed that grew into the "Justifiable Homicide" declaration signed by extreme anti-choice leaders in America. The "righteous violence" movement – which sanctions violence against abortion doctors – has produced the likes of Paul Hill, who was convicted of the murders of an abortion doctor and his medical assistant. In 1994 Hill said to a national television audience: "I definitely feel good about what I have done and what I am doing. I think I have acted nobly."

Head-to-head with such extremism, Gomperts plods on. Why? Because of the women, she says. The pregnant Polish teenager, the desperate women of Oman, even the worried boyfriend from Ireland. All of them frantic, all of them desperate.

"I keep going because I constantly confront enormous desperation and injustice done to women," she says. "What keeps me going are all the requests from women all over world who want to end their pregnancies for all kinds of reasons."

Another phone rings in the background. She pauses. "Can you call me back in a few minutes?" she says politely. "I need to take this."

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