In June 2001, under a cloud-streaked sky, Rebecca Gomperts set out from the Dutch port of Scheveningen in a rented 110-foot ship bound for Ireland. Lashed to the deck was a shipping container, freshly painted light blue and stocked with packets of mifepristone (which used to be called RU-486) and misoprostol. The pills are given to women in the first trimester to induce a miscarriage. Medical abortion, as this procedure is called, had recently become available in the Netherlands. But use of misoprostol and mifepristone to end a pregnancy was illegal in Ireland, where abortion by any means remains against the law, with few exceptions.
Gomperts is a general-practice physician and activist. She first assisted with an abortion 20 years ago on a trip to Guinea, just before she finished medical school in Amsterdam. Three years later, Gomperts went to work as a ship’s doctor on a Greenpeace vessel. Landing in Mexico, she met a girl who was raising her younger siblings because her mother had died during a botched illegal abortion. When the ship traveled to Costa Rica and Panama, women told her about hardships they suffered because they didn’t have access to the procedure. “It was not part of my medical training to talk about illegal abortion and the public-health impact it has,” Gomperts told me this summer. “In those intense discussions with women, it really hit me.”