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The Enduring Importance of 'The Abortion Boat'

Why the radical charity on the high seas is still vital and needs our support helping those where terminations are illegal.

Josie Klakstrom
all aboard!

bortion remains one of the most controversial topics across the globe; it occupies a deeply fraught place across cultures, religions, and countless ‘isms from gender and class to race and sexuality. Some believe a women’s right to choose is an inalienable given and anything less is a human rights violation, while others call it sanctioned murder — and then there are those that simply aren’t sure how they feel. 

Recently on Twitter, a casual — and vulnerable — post on a pending abortion stoked a public fire of support and public condemnation.

Some of Human Mel’s most ardent support came from musician Amanda Palmer, who in the past has penned songs about her abortions, and dedicated a large part of her book, The Art of Asking, to her struggle with terminating pregnancies she did and didn’t want to continue. 

Other strangers rallied to Mel’s side — insisting abortions aren’t a big deal or calling her decision a ‘radical act of self-love,’ while others calls her a vile human for ending a life, while others took a gentler path, pleading with her simply; do not go through with the abortion. But whatever position the replies took, there was counter-backlash from the other corner resulting in a kind of roar.

Human Mel’s follow-up tweet said it all.

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There are currently twenty-six countries where abortion is entirely illegal, regardless of how the child was conceived. 37 countries solely agree to termination if the mother’s life is at risk, meaning that if the pregnancy is the result of incest or rape, the child has to be carried to term. In short, the only option for millions of women — and anyone with a uterus — is to put themselves in a treacherous situation, undergoing an illegal procedure that could result in death or incarceration. 

The World Health Organization reports that between 2015 and 2019, an average of 73.3 million abortions were performed per year worldwide, and a third of them were carried out dangerously. 

25-year-old Rebecca Gomperts began her medical career in Guiana — a region in north-eastern South America — and saw first-hand the horrors of illegal abortions. Following her residency, the Dutch doctor worked as a physician on now decommissioned Rainbow Warrior II, Greenpeace’s healthcare ship. While on board, Gomperts saw the struggles of many women dealing with unwanted pregnancies or had undergone botched backstreet abortions. Additionally many of them had been raped, but it wasn’t just dealing with the psychological trauma that came with the attack, it was being shunned by their communities. 

Seeing how distressed the women were, Gomperts decided to dedicate her life to ensuring abortions were available to them, whether they were illegal in their native country or not. 

"I went back to the Rainbow Warrior and told the crew the story and how I wanted to help and they said that if you had a Dutch-registered ship it would be subject to Dutch law and so it would be legal to provide abortions in international waters,” Gomperts said in an interview with The Guardian, “It seemed like the perfect solution. Of course, I had no idea at the time what I was taking on."

Gomperts launched Women on Waves in 1999 as a  non-profit organisation designed to respond to “urgent medical need and draw public attention to the consequences of unwanted pregnancy and illegal abortion.” Women on Waves serves as a portable clinic, available to anyone who needs help. The 8 by 20 foot mobile gynaecological unit, named the A-Portable, was fitted inside a shipping container, designed by Dutch artist Atelier Van Lieshout. 

While the ship isn’t currently sailing due to COVID, typically the entire clinic is strapped onto ships rented by Women on Waves, who traverse the seas and take the services to anyone who needs abortions. The unit offers medical terminations, a space for private counselling, sonograms and is staffed with two physicians and a nurse. 

The ship ports in countries who allow them, and for those who don’t, it travels further out to international waters, where local laws can’t touch them.

Rebecca Gomperts // Women on Waves

In 2001, the ship made its first crossing to Ireland, where abortion laws were once Draconian giving mothers and fetuses equal legal status.. (In 2018, Ireland legalized abortion in a historic referendum.

Making their way to Dublin harbour, the ship contained 120 IUDs, 20 doses of the abortion pill, 250 morning after pills and thousands of condoms. On the way, Gomperts and her team heard that Dutch parliament had decided that the organisation wasn’t licensed to offer abortions, and this meant Gomperts could end up in prison.

The ship eventually docked and while there, the WoW volunteers offered workshops, educating women on pregnancy. They handed out their shipment of condoms and pills, but they couldn’t offer the abortions they had promised. They’d received over 200 calls from desperate women in Ireland, needing terminations, but there was nothing they could do. 

The year after, Dutch parliament eventually gave permission for the ship to offer abortions and the WoW team sailed to Poland, Spain, Morocco, Portugal, Guatemala and Mexico, providing help to women who’ve long needed it. 

Nicknamed the “boat of death” by Guatemalan official Raul Romero, Rebecca Gomperts and her team of volunteers were met with angry locals in 2017, including representatives from the Catholic church; the Guatemalan Army set up a barricade to stop anyone from getting on or off the docked ship. The country only offers abortions to mothers whose lives are at risk due to the pregnancy, however over 60,000 illegal terminations were being performed in the country every year, putting the very women they wanted to protect from harm, at risk. 

"We know that the services we provide will never be able to meet the demand," Gomperts told The Guardian. "It is a symbolic gesture. We know we won't solve the problem."

In 2005, the Women on Waves organisation evolved with the times, and expanded its reach online to become Women on Web. The cause is the same, but is currently run out of Canada — rather than The Netherlands — and offers online consultations by physicians and trained help desk staff. They also send the necessary pills via postal mail, because before Women on Web was founded, there was no access to abortions through telemedicine.

A January 2020 report found that in ten months, over 6,000 requests were received by Women on Web between October 2017 and August 2018, asking for help with pregnancy termination, with 76% of these requests coming from American states where abortions are illegal — the majority coming from Mississippi. They found that 71% were requesting help due to cost with abortions running up to $1,000. Privacy came in at a close second. The report also showed that in both supportive and hostile states, lack of contraception was the main reason for the pregnancy, with contraception failing as the second-most common reason. 

The company continues to offer “on-boat” abortions, and in 2017, the crew of the Women on Waves ship were banned from Mexico. Instead of docking the ship, they took a smaller boat and ferried the women out into the Pacific coast, thirteen miles offshore from Ixtapa. 

More recently, Instagram and Facebook momentarily blocked their social media accounts and others that support the cause. This obstruction came when Covid-19 began and isolation was at its peak, which meant women had little access to safe abortions. The accounts have now been reinstated, and WoW urges supporters to follow their accounts in unity. 

“How can anti-abortion accounts be able to spread misinformation on these same platforms, but information that is based on science and real experiences of people continue to be censored?”

The cause continues and the organisation’s current mission is to stop countries blocking their websites, to let residents have access to the help they need. 

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WoW Instagram account post 

With so many countries continuing to criminalise terminations, there continues to be a dire need for Dr. Rebecca Gomperts, Women on Waves and its successor, Women on Web. The organisation continues to help women, from abortions to condoms and every necessary aid in between, but with that continued help and continued adversity comes continued expenses and the need to fundraise.  

To donate to WoW or to read more about how you can help, you can visit their website,, or donate here.

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