Recent changes to Dutch abortion law have caused international abortion provider Rebecca Gomperts to cancel upcoming campaigns for her renowned organization Women on Waves. For a decade, the Dutch organization has offered medical abortions in international waters to women from countries where abortion is illegal. Using ships registered in the Netherlands, they transport women offshore, where the laws of the country of registration apply onboard, and distribute the abortion pill at sea.
Until now, Dutch law did not interfere with a pregnancy under 6 weeks. The recent update of the Pregnancy Termination Act places the regulation of terminating an early pregnancy under the criminal code and states the abortion pill can only be administered in specialized clinics licensed for the procedure.
According to Labor Party MP Chantal Gill'ard, who supported the change to the law, the implications for Dutch women are minor because early abortion procedures are still legal and available. She described the new regulation as "a formalization of the current practice," posing "no change in the practical situation for women."
However, the updated law has dire implications for the activity of Women on Waves. Because the law requires that only licensed clinics can prescribe the abortion pill for early pregnancies, Women on Waves is no longer legally able to offer abortion medication on their campaigns.
Between 2001 and 2004, Women on Waves sailed a portable medical clinic built in a shipping container which wasequipped and licensed to provide surgical abortions. No surgeries were conducted in the clinic, largely due to Gomperts' shift in focus from surgical abortion to the provision and promotion of medical abortion.
Eliminating the need for surgery and the cumbersome portable clinic meant that Women on Waves' doctors could work with only the abortion pill, and on any registered Dutch vessel. In campaigns after 2004, they have conducted campaigns without the clinic. This has enabled them travel further distances, and travel plans were in the works for a campaign to several countries in South America.
"The medication is revolutionary," Gomperts says. "It is affordable, accessible, and women can administer it themselves."
Under the new law, Gomperts can no longer legally administer the pills without the onboard clinic. Sailing with the clinic to far destinations is financially and logistically unfeasible, and Gomperts has cancelled all upcoming ship campaigns.
She has also announced that she will rally other physicians, general practitioners, and lawyers to stage a procedure against the Dutch government. She claims that the process through which the law was changed is "undemocratic and unlawful," as it has not gone through Parliament as the Dutch legal system requires.
Gomperts' announcements have ruffled feathers of the Dutch Secretary of Health Mariëtte Bussemaker and other supporters of the law. Bussemaker told Dutch newspaper Volkskrant, "A boat does not meet the requirements. We also do not allow abortions in dingy basements in people's homes or in the bedroom."
Gomperts said that it was "quite painful" to hear her work compared to the practice of unsafe abortions, given her decade of service promoting safe abortion for women in need.
Over the past decade of its existence, Women on Waves has stirred diplomatic tensions for the Dutch government, and as the conservative right gains ground in the Netherlands, Gomperts' opponents are growing in strength. According to Gomperts, the Socialist party conceded to fundamentalist-influenced conservative factions to allow this law to pass. "Abortion is negotiated," she said, "Women's lives are always negotiated."
More importantly to Gomperts than the threat to her organization is the general restriction of medical abortion. The new law sets a precedent for limitation of the pill's use far beyond the reach of the Women on Waves' ships. According to Gomperts, medical abortion is crucial to the future of global women's health, and understanding its potential is critical to this debate.
In the United States, the medical community is uneasy about supporting the autonomous use of the abortion pill by women. They prefer that medical abortions are monitored by a doctor, although there are considerable efforts by the nursing community to increase access by licensing nurse practitioners to distribute the pill. Gomperts' work, however, is well past the comfort of a clinic; she works, quite literally, beyond no man's land.
The restrictions Gomperts faces today are comparable to logistical barriers she faced ten years ago, when her clinic was first navigating the necessary licensing to provide abortions off the coast of Ireland.
But this is not a woman, nor a movement, that concedes to setbacks. When faced with warships blocking her ship's entry into the Portuguese harbor in 2004, Gomperts appeared on live television to detail how a woman could find and take the abortion pill herself, without the need for a ship, a doctor, or permission.
This moment was a direct precursor to the establishment of Women on Web, an online distributor of the abortion pill, and to hotlines that publicize information about medical abortion. Hotlines currently exist in Ecuador, Argentina, and Chile, with more planned for the coming year.
As Gomperts plans to stage a legal procedure against what she deems an "outrageous" new law, it will be interesting to see what channels the Dutch government has inadvertently opened by attempting to ground her ship.
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