Interim Staff

In front of a classroom full of University of Toronto law students, Rebecca Gomperts, founder and director of a mobile abortuary, declared: “An early, legal abortion is safer than using a tampon.”  Seated in the front row, Henry Morgentaler, Canada’s most infamous abortionist, nodded in agreement.

In October, Gomperts was in Toronto to speak about her work with Women on Waves, a Dutch non-profit organization established to challenge pro-life policies in regions where abortion continues to be illegal. The floating abortuary has offered first-trimester chemical RU-486 abortions to women from countries where the act is illegal.

Gomperts detailed the activities of the organization.  In campaigns like those conducted in Ireland in 2001 and in Poland in 2003, pregnant mothers boarded and the ship set sail for international waters. The mothers were there given mifepristone, a drug that disintegrates the nutrient-rich lining of the uterus and starves the developing baby.

Before sailing back into national waters, the women were given misoprostol, a drug that causes the expulsion of the dead baby, to take at home 48 hours later.  Because the drug that causes the death of the baby is given in international waters, national laws prohibiting abortion and punitive consequences are not applicable to the women.

Gomperts looked to the audience and asked, “How can there still be countries that deny the human right of women to control when they have children?”  After a dramatic pause, she pressed a button and the projection screen was lit up by a cartoon image of the Pope.
Gomperts went on to explain how the project got off the ground. According to Gomperts, the floating abortuary was built with a grant given by the Dutch government.

A smiling Gomperts added that the money received from the government was actually an art grant and that on the application, the abortuary was described as a “functional work of art.”  While Women on Waves does not yet have a Dutch licence to perform surgical abortions onboard the ship, a ruling is expected to come down this fall.

Before concluding her presentation, Gomperts gushed about the positive media coverage that Women on Waves campaigns have garnered.  She cited polls conducted by news media on the abortion question both before and after the arrival of the ship and boasted that public support for legalized abortion has increased substantially both in Ireland and in Poland.

In a final anecdote about media coverage, Gomperts talked about how the failed attempt to enter Portuguese national waters in 2004 was actually one of the organization’s greatest media successes. Even though Women on Waves was barred from access to the pregnant mothers, sympathetic media outlets broadcast information about the organization, going so far as to feature its website, which Gomperts boasted had published very thorough instructions on how women could “safely self-abort” using a combination of drugs and even strategies on how they might be able to obtain drugs without a prescription.

In an interview with after the ship’s visit to Poland in 2003, Lech Kowalewski, of the Polish Federation of Pro-life Movements, exhibited frustration at the media’s biased coverage of the campaigns, explaining that Women on Waves’ “main goal was not to give access to abortion. Its goal was to get access to the media.” Kowalewski rebuked Women on Waves, saying, “They want to trigger a propaganda campaign. They want to poison the minds of the people.”