Bad Ass Women’s Activist of the Week: Gutsy Abortion Provider Edition

The Bad Ass Women’s Activist of the Week is a semi-regular segment that I do over at The Curvature whenever I come across a really kick ass person who deserves some praise and recognition. With all of the bad news out there in the feminist blogosphere, I figure that news about the people who are doing good things is much needed.

This week, the bad ass activist is Rebecca Gomperts. She’s the founder of the amazing Women on Waves organization. [Warning: I’m not nuts about the tactic of showing the bodies of women who have died from illegal abortions. If you don’t want to see such an image, do not go to their “facts” page]. Many of you have probably heard of them already, but for those who haven’t, Women on Waves is a Dutch group that charters a boat into the international waters outside of countries where abortion is illegal and provides them safely (and legally) to women in need. Which, if you ask me, is really fucking cool.

The Guardian has a really great profile of Gomperts this week, and so I thought that it would be a great time to celebrate WoW’s accomplishments.

It was a stint as resident doctor aboard Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior II boat that inspired Gomperts to set up WoW. She was shocked by the number of women who were either suffering from botched back street abortions, or struggling to cope with several mouths to feed, in countries where the procedure is illegal or severely restricted. She became determined to find a way to help them. “I remember meeting an 18-year-old girl in South America who was desperately trying to take care of her three younger brothers and sisters. She had recently lost her mother because of a backstreet abortion. Her mother had been pregnant for a fifth time and couldn’t support another child so she had gone down the illegal route. I thought, how is it possible that a whole family has lost their mother just because she couldn’t get a safe and legal abortion?

“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. It seemed like the perfect solution. Of course, I had no idea at the time what I was taking on.”

Gomperts’ plan was to raise enough money to buy her own ship, which would be properly equipped with the necessary medical equipment and treatment rooms, but it quickly became clear that this wouldn’t be possible. Pro-choice groups don’t attract the level of donor support often enjoyed by pro-life organisations, so Gomperts turned to Plan B: finding funds for a mobile clinic that could be transferred to a hired ship for each voyage.

WoW visits are in fact legally blocked by some countries, including on their very first voyage to Ireland. And though the terminations they do provide are very important, they are only one ship, and Gomperts acknowledges that their work is mainly symbolic and political.

There have been some successes. In 2004 when Women on Waves sailed to Portugal they were blockaded by two war ships, which refused to let them enter Portuguese waters. Gomperts says this “disproportionate response” by the government caused such a furore in the country that it ensured abortion was a key issue in the 2005 election, which ended with the ruling party being replaced by the Socialist party. In February this year, Portugal held a national referendum on abortion and in April, President Cavaco Silva ratified a law allowing women to obtain abortions until the 10th week of pregnancy.

It is this kind of success that propels Gomperts forward, she says. She has recently been battling with the Dutch government for permission to provide abortions on the ship until the 12th week of pregnancy, instead of the seven weeks that the organisation’s licence currently covers.

“There is a very small window in which we can help women at the moment. I would like that extended because it is still safe under the conditions we provide.

“We would never provide surgical abortions purely for practical reasons. You need at least 20 minutes for each woman so we would have to stay out in international waters for a lot longer. We also know that the services we provide will never be able to meet the demand. It is a symbolic gesture. We know we won’t solve the problem.”

That is an absolutely amazing impact, even when they are not able to perform any abortions. And, for the record, WoW also provides information on their website about how to obtain RU-486 (the abortion pill) safely in countries where abortion is illegal.

I encourage you to go read the whole profile. I have to say, I have a bit of a thing for abortion providers and have featured them as bad ass women’s activists before. As a reproductive rights activist and Planned Parenthood volunteer, I know that we can fight all of the political fights in the world, but the law is absolutely meaningless if there are not doctors willing to provide the abortions we’re fighting to keep or make legal. And currently, the law is meaningless for many women in the U.S. who have no access to abortion due to distance and/or cost. These doctors also generally work for nonprofits, which means that they aren’t paid as highly as they would be in private OBGYN practices. And worst of all, they are regularly intimidated by anti-choice protesters who threaten them with violence on a regular basis, and have in fact been known to follow through on those threats. To be an abortion provider takes courage, no matter where they practice. Gomperts faces not only potential violence; she also faces potential trouble with the law. And she does her job, anyway.

Being an abortion provider should not have to be a heroic thing, and I look forward to the day when it’s not. But unfortunately, right now it is, and so I think that these doctors and their staff deserve our utmost respect.

If you’d like to donate to Women on Waves, check them out here.

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7 comments for “Bad Ass Women’s Activist of the Week: Gutsy Abortion Provider Edition

  1. November 15, 2007 at 10:59 pm

    rock on, cara!

    while it is really disgusting that we have to consider what she does heroic, it doesn’t make the work she does any less amazing!

  2. JenLovesPonies
    November 16, 2007 at 1:08 am

    I was reading this, pondering, how the hell does she provide abortions on water? That seems unsafe. Though, in retrospect, duh, medical abortion.

  3. November 16, 2007 at 10:00 am

    Yup. She says so herself in the article that surgical abortion would be unsafe and for that reason she would never do it on the boat.

  4. Jay
    November 16, 2007 at 1:30 pm

    I hate the term “abortion provider”. She’s a doctor. A brave, compassionate and amazingly strong doctor. But she’s a doctor, not just an “abortion provider”. It feels to me as if using the term cedes the language to the right by talking as if terminations are the only medical care she provides. Now, that may be true for Dr. Gomperts although I’m willing to be she at least takes blood pressures and medical histories.

    In the US, abortion providers generally also offer a full spectrum of gyn services and sometimes primary care. They’re doctors – or nurse practitioners, or midwives. So OK, I’ll settle for “clinician” or “medical provider” but in this case she’s a doctor.

    Cara, I’m glad you’re out there working for reproductive freedom and Rebecca Gomperts deserves all your support and more. I just want to change the terminology a little. Good doctors think broadly and deeply about what their patients need and about how society can best provide for all of us, and abortion providers are good doctors.

  5. November 17, 2007 at 2:05 am

    Cara, I have to colored version of the image on Women on Waves’ fact page. Just a fyi.

    And as I mentioned on Wednesday, anti-choice thugs are the ones who are forcing great OB/GYNs out of business with their laws and their terroristic acts. Because of the anti-choicers’ actions, we have a severe nursing shortage in this nation.

  6. November 17, 2007 at 11:36 am

    Hi Jay.

    You’re right, these doctors are OBGYNs. However, most OBGYNs (unfortunately) do not perform abortions. So while referring to them as OBGYNs is totally accurate, it’s generally not specific enough. I purposely don’t use the term “abortion doctor,” because there is no such thing as an “abortion doctor,” that’s not a specialty, and I think that term does suggest that abortions are all they do. To me, personally, “abortion provider” is shorter for the more-accurate “doctors who provide abortions” or “OBGYNs who provide abortions.” I don’t use those terms because, well, they’re clunky. And I’m prone enough to run-on-sentences as it is. I also think that the length makes them less likely to pick up favor.

    But I definitely think that this is a good conversation to have! I’m not trying to dismiss your thoughts, just letting you know that this is something that I have also thought about, and these are my current conclusions.

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