September 4th marks the tenth anniversary of the founding of Women on Waves, a Dutch group that has provided abortion pills for women in countries where abortion is illegal. Women on Waves used to sail their boat out into international waters to evade anti-abortion laws in the women’s home country, provide the abortion pills, then send the women home. But as of May 18th of this year, the group has run aground, after the Dutch government told Women on Waves that they had to stop. According to the Dutch newspaper NRC:
For [founder Rebecca] Gomperts it was her way to right an enormous wrong: the 20 million women who undergo illegal abortions every year worldwide, and especially the 68,000 women who die as a result each year – a plane crash a day . . .
On May 18, the Dutch government decided to limit the distribution of abortion pills to specially approved clinics only, including for early abortions (up to 16 days after the last menstruation). Until now, WoW was allowed to provide the pill for early abortions based on a written permission from then Dutch health minister Els Borst.
Gomperts: “We had planned to campaign this year with a yacht off the coasts of Nicaragua, Chile, Brazil and Argentina. Our legal system states that what is allowed under Dutch law is also allowed in international waters. So women boarding our ship did not have to fear prosecution. Now they risk prosecution in their own country if the Dutch health inspection rules that we are working outside the law. That’s a risk we couldn’t take, so we had to call off the campaign.”
Everyone likes to think of Holland as a laissez faire country, where anything goes. By American standards, The Netherlands is still a progressive Mecca for tourists who want to smoke pot and visit prostitutes. Holland has historically been a very tolerant nation – but it would probably surprise many people to learn that Holland didn’t legalize abortion until 1981, and even then there was a five day waiting period to obtain an abortion. The waiting period was a concession to the Christian Democrat Party (CDA). However, there have never been restrictions placed on the use of RU-486 or emergency contraception, which is consistent with the liberal Dutch attitude.
However, things are starting to change in The Netherlands. Conservative politicians, such as the infamous Geert Wilders, who garnered international attention for making an anti-Muslim video in 2006, are starting to gain more popularity within the Dutch parliament. The conservatives have been successful in restricting Holland’s lenient drug laws – you can no longer buy mushrooms in the coffee shops, just marijuana. And the conservative parties have become very anti-immigrant with the decline of Holland’s economy. Wilders is rumored to be considering a run for Prime Minister. And the pending lawsuit against Women on Waves must be contextualized within that move to more conservative politics. One of the great ironies of Holland’s tolerant attitude is that even intolerance, such as the anti-Muslim rhetoric of Geert Wilders, must be tolerated if the country is to live up to its reputation.
That’s not to say that all hope is lost for Women on Waves. When I e-mailed one of my cousin’s in Holland to ask her about her take on the story, she told me that she has faith in the Dutch court system. The debate in The Netherlands seems to be focused on the safety of conducting abortions off shore. My cousin raised some good points:
They always have been working “on the edge,” because that is the place they discovered to serve women who otherwise would not be helped. That’s a good thing! But also this organization can go “over the edge.” What if someone would be damaged if the circumstances were not good? It’s hard to tell if they did, hence they have been called before the court. I strongly believe in our justice system, so we will see what it will bring about.
Despite the grounding of Women on Waves, Gomperts’ group will continue to provide help via the internet. The NRC story states that:
the single-most important achievement, [Gomperts] says, was the founding of Women on Web. Through the organization’s website, women in countries where abortion is illegal can now order the abortion pill online. A doctor asks 25 questions and checks for contraindications before writing out a prescription. The pills are then mailed in a discreet envelope. For legal reasons, Women on Web is registered in Canada, but the pills themselves come from a variety of countries.
Gomperts: “For many women this is huge progress. It is innovative, it really helps women. Women in countries where abortion is illegal live under tremendous stress. They go to unreliable websites where they are offered fake pills. There is also have a help desk where women can talk about their worries. These women need help. And anonymous support over the internet is quite effective. There are no taboos online; there is no shame to talk.”
We’ll keep you posted on any developments with Women on Waves’ court case. For more information about Women on Waves, check out this article from The Global Post, and this one from Broadsheet @ Salon.com.