Shipboard Abortions Planned for Third World Women

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:08 PM EDT

( - Pregnant women in mostly Third World nations where abortions are illegal will be offered abortions onboard a ship sailing outside those countries' territorial waters, if a Dutch doctor has her way.

Dr. Rebecca Gomperts, founder of a group called Women on Waves, has announced her intention to outfit and sail a 50-meter ship around the world to offer abortions to women otherwise denied them.

Women will be picked up in ports, and taken to international waters where the abortions will be carried out in a floating clinic called Sea Change.

While in harbor, the ship would also provide contraceptives and workshops, and train local doctors in giving abortions, according to information on the organization's website.

Its staff would also seek to influence the authorities in the target countries to adopt Dutch policies. "Due to sexual education, accessibility of contraception and legal abortion, our country has the world's lowest abortion rate," Gomperts is quoted as saying.

Gomperts is the former ship's doctor on the Rainbow Warrior, a vessel belonging to the environmental activist organization Greenpeace.

While sailing on the ship she learned of problems relating to abortions in South America. She said she was shocked to learn about the large numbers of women who die each year during or after abortions.

"Of the 53 million abortions done annually worldwide, 20 million are illegal and unsafe, with the result that at least 70,000 women die each year unnecessarily."

Having witnessed "the impact that Greenpeace's methods can have" Gomperts said she realized similar methods could be used to provide abortions in international waters.

Explaining how the envisaged program would work, she said, "Women organizations in the concerned countries will have to show the pregnant woman the way to the harbor where the abortion boat is moored."

The ship would then sail out of territorial waters - usually about 12 miles offshore - where the abortions would be carried out.

Gomperts told a Dutch newspaper, NRC Handelsblad, that if the government of any particular country objected to the activity and ordered the ship to leave the quayside, "small motor boats will bring our clients to the abortion boat on open sea. There we can go to work."

Pro-life response

Asked by the paper about expected opposition from pro-life groups, she said: "I don't care much about them either. I don't have moral problems with abortion; it is assistance, that's it. A fetus that can't survive on it's own outside the mother's womb is in my view not a child."

In response to queries sent to her, Gomperts said Friday public response to the plan had been mostly positive, "to some extent due to the fact that there is only a very limited anti-choice movement in the Netherlands."

Recently, however, "the pace of the occasional anti-choice reaction has begun to pick up, almost all of which has come, symptomatically, from the United States."

That reaction includes a statement from the president of the American Life League, Judie Brown, who called the group "pirate abortionists."

Brown said in a statement that Women on Waves would be "circumventing the sovereign rights of nations by carrying women offshore to kill their children.

"The human rights of poor women of color, who want and need basic health care, are being plundered. The international community should be outraged ..."

Brown also questioned the possibility of a "safe abortion" being carried out at sea.

"These women may literally end up being shark bait, along with the mortal remains of their babies. This is an outrage of the highest order which must be stopped."

Gomperts clearly expects opposition in some ports.

"If we keep the time and date of departure secret to the public, we can hopefully prevent any major public intervention.

"In response to the potential for violent acts, we realize that we will have to be very vigilant - and have therefore included security as a significant item in the ship's budget." Doctors and patients would also be provided with bullet-proof vests.

Gomperts is aware of the peculiar risks ships carry. The Rainbow Warrior was destroyed ten years ago while in harbor in New Zealand. French agents bombed the ship because Greenpeace was protesting and complicating French nuclear tests in the South Pacific.


Woman on Waves hopes the project will be up and running as soon as sufficient funding has been obtained. The group needs around $1 million to buy and outfit the ship, which will be large enough to provide accommodation for five crew and 25 patients, and some $500,000 a year to operate it.

She told NRC Handelsblad: "If we perform one hundred abortions each week during ten months per year, each intervention will cost only one hundred dollar to make the project self-supporting. If we can get enough donations we can do the interventions without charge. The enterprise will be on a non-profit basis."

The paper quoted Gomperts as saying she was counting on the support of UNESCO and the Ford Foundation. But she said Friday the quote had been inaccurate - neither UNESCO nor the Dutch government would sponsor the plan.

She was "not at liberty to reveal" a wide range of sources which had offered funding, but highlighted "the wonderful example of a Catholic high school in northern Holland" which undertook "a spontaneous fundraising action on our behalf."

Reports from the Netherlands said the Dutch Developmental Cooperation Minister, Eveline Herfkens, has expressed support for the Sea Change proposal, and did not rule out the possibility of helping to fund it.

But Gomperts also disputed this Friday, saying there would be no financial support from the government.

The feminist magazine Ms reports in its current issue that the floating clinic plan has "sparked the imagination of activists around the world."

It quotes Rebecca Cook, committee member of the World Health Organization, as saying: "If more women took these kinds of risks, we'd all be better off."

Cook said Gomperts was like "Doctors Without Borders" for women. I really think she may join the ranks of the reproductive pioneers of the twentieth century."

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow