Abortion at Sea

A Dutch doctor aims to launch a floating clinic to help women end unwanted pregnancies offshore, out of reach of their countries’ laws.

Women around the world who can’t get abortions in their native lands may soon have a chance to get them at sea.

Dr. Rebecca Gomperts, a physician in the Netherlands, is currently working to raise a million dollars to equip a ship, to be dubbed Sea Change, as an ocean-borne abortion clinic. Gomperts aims to sail around the world, picking up women with unwanted pregnancies in countries that ban abortions and taking them 12 miles offshore into international waters to perform the procedure. On shore, she and her half-dozen crew members will also train local abortion providers, give out contraceptives, and hold workshops on reproductive health issues.

The World Health Organization estimates that 20 million of 53 million abortions each year are performed under unsafe and illegal conditions and result in the deaths of some 70,000 women. By offering safe, legal abortion services, Gomperts aims to help offset those numbers to some small degree — and to help inspire women’s groups, legislators, and public health workers to agitate for easier access to abortion.

“The main idea is to reduce mortalities caused by unsafe abortions,” says Gomperts.

The idea for Sea Change was born while Gomperts served as a physician on Greenpeace’s ship, the Rainbow Warrior. Greenpeace’s ability to change public policy through direct actions convinced her that similar strategies could be used to improve reproductive rights on a country-by-country basis.

But will her floating clinic plan hold water? Predictably, the ship has triggered a flood of controversy before it has even launched. When word recently leaked out that Sea Change will make the heavily-Catholic island state of Malta one of its stops, local officials were outraged. Leading bishops called the plan a “monstrosity”; deputy prime minister Lawrence Gonzi called it “horrendous” and has threatened to prosecute anyone cooperating with Gomperts.

In Europe, Ireland and Poland also ban abortions. But Gomperts says the need for her services is most acute in South America, Africa, and Southeast Asia. No matter where she plans to go, however, pro-life activists hope Gomperts’ plan dies in the water.

The idea “isn’t just wrong; it’s stupid,” says Father Richard Welch, president of US-based Human Life International. “To perform this procedure on a ship, with the difficulties in maintaining a proper surgical environment, without proper follow-up care, while making these women endure a 25-mile ferry ride on the open ocean, is unconscionably bad treatment of women.”

Gomperts insists the women will not be in any danger. She will only perform first-trimester abortions, she says, which she calls “very simple” procedures. “Under local anesthesia, it won’t take more than five to 10 minutes,” says Gomperts. “It will be very safe, and if there are any complications, I’m sure we can treat them on board.”

Anika Rahman, director of international programs at the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, is concerned about how local women’s groups will respond to a foreign entity providing abortion services.

“The local groups may feel like somebody is stepping on their toes,” she says.

There’s also concern that women who receive abortions on board Sea Change may be prosecuted upon returning to their home country — as the Maltese deputy prime minister has threatened.

Whether international waters are considered outside domestic abortion laws varies from country to country, says University of Richmond law professor John Paul Jones, an expert in comparative constitutional law.

Gomperts says that she’ll only go where she’s invited. “We’ve had a lot of positive responses — otherwise, we wouldn’t be doing this,” she says. “We have already identified some countries where the groups are really, really interested in working with us. And those are the countries we go to, not anywhere else.”