Dutch physician Rebecca Gomperts once dreamt of a fleet of floating clinics that would sail the high seas, providing abortions to women in need from the safety of international waters. In 1999, Gomperts launched an “abortion boat”—and an ancillary organization, Women on Waves (WOW)—to help realize her global vision. But after a decade of sailing, the controversial vessel will return to port. The move was forced by a change in Dutch law, which Gomperts says reflects “a growing tendency toward restriction and intolerance” in her country.
Previously, Dutch law allowed women to obtain abortion pills—which can induce miscarriage in the first weeks of pregnancy—from their doctors. That allowed Gomperts to provide them on her ship.“Our legal system states that what is allowed under Dutch law is also allowed in international waters,” Gomperts explained. “So women boarding our ship did not have to fear prosecution.” But that changed when the Dutch government passed a law that limited the distribution of abortion pills to approved clinics, of which the “abortion boat” is not one. “Now [women] risk prosecution in their own country if the Dutch health inspectorate rules that we are working outside Dutch law. That’s a risk we couldn’t take.” Gomperts has called off her campaign, and cancelled future trips.
WOW’s goal of providing clinical abortions on board never did materialize—it only got permission to perform actual abortions in October 2008, and they were never carried out. But Gomperts’ “symbolic” struggle took other forms: an aggressive effort to educate women about “medication available for pregnancy termination.” The doctor blames the growing force of the Christian Democrats and the Dutch Christian Union Party for the new conservative climate in the Netherlands. WOW will work on a lawsuit to challenge the new law.