This is the second part of a story by E&M‘s Beatričė Juškaitė & Ieva Gudaitytė who look into how activists and organisations help women – in Poland and worldwide – who seek to terminate pregnancies. The first part of this story can be found here. Both articles originally appeared in Lithuanian on the portal of the Lithuanian Centre for Human Rights (Lietuvos žmogaus teisių centras).

“We enable women to make decisions about their lives”. This is how Hazal, a 29-year-old “Women on Web” helpdesk and outreach coordinator from Turkey, describes her work. Together with the sister organisation “Women on Waves”, based in the Netherlands, she fights for the right to safe and legal abortion globally: on land, water, in the skies, and online.

Abortion ship

Both organisations were established by the Dutch doctor and activist Rebecca Gomperts, listed by the Times as among the hundred most influential people of 2020. After graduating from medical school, Gomperts joined the Greenpeace ship “Rainbow Warrior” as a doctor and environmental activist. As she travelled around South America, known for its strict reproductive laws, she was touched by the stories of women attempting to end their pregnancies illegally.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), only one out of four abortions in this region is safe. In 1999, hoping to be able to change this situation, R. Gomperts started “Women on Waves” – a ship that travels to countries where abortion is criminalized.

Under the Dutch flag

In the international waters, the ship operates according to the law of its flag state. The “Women on Waves” ship is registered in the Netherlands, where pregnancies can be terminated upon request up to the 21st week, or, in case of medical reasons, the 24th. Hence, when the “Women on Waves” ship is in international waters, women from countries where the procedure is criminalised can legally terminate pregnancies on board.

When “Women on Waves” arrives in a country, women seeking an abortion need to contact the organisation by phone, email, or by visiting the ship. Then, together with the crew, they sail to international waters, 12 sea miles or 22 kilometres from the shore, where abortions can be carried out.

Extending help in 17 languages

Gomperts shortly found other ways to help. In 2005, she established a sister organisation in Canada called “Women on Web”, which consults and offers abortion services by telemedicine. Acquiring the service takes several stages: first, one needs to file an online request which consists of 25 questions and is meant to familiarize the medical team with the case. After a doctor checks the medical data, appropriate doses of mifepristone and misoprostol are prescribed in compliance with the WHO recommendations. While the medicine reaches patients’ homes by post, the helpdesk, which operates in 17 languages including Polish, provides step-by-step instructions and walks women through the process in real time.

Illustration by Vivianna Maria Stanislavska

When the Constitutional Court decided that abortions in cases of foetal birth defects are against the Polish constitution in October 2020, both organisations were already prepared. In 2003 “Women on Waves” had sailed to Poland with medical abortion pills. The ship’s crew was met by protesters armed with faux blood and eggs, and the organisation was accused of breaking the national law against abortions. After a couple of months, the Polish government withdrew the accusations.

In 2015, “Women on Waves” used a drone to fly medical abortion pills from Germany to Poland, which were confiscated by the local police. In 2017, when the “morning-after” pill, or so-called “emergency pill”, which can prevent pregnancy after unprotected sex or in case the contraception has failed, became available only with a medical prescription, the organisation was quick to start supplying online prescriptions. According to current regulations, a prescription from a doctor in any EU-country is valid in all 27 member-states.

“We aim to promptly react to the most recent developments,” explains Hazal. Therefore, when the Polish ruling party Law and Justice (PiS) made abortions illegal even in cases of foetal defects, “Women on Web” instantly promised to supply free medical abortion pills to women in such situations.

Wide-ranging discussions are crucial

“Abortion is never only linked to healthcare. It reveals the general situation of women’s rights in a country and demonstrates the interplay of religion and political institutions,” notes Hazal, who has been with the organisation for almost nine years. That is why “Women on Waves” and “Women on Web” aim at sparking a wide-ranging public debate.

“Abortion is often an isolated experience. It is hard to visualise. Unless we talk about these images used by those who oppose the procedure… It remains a taboo. Hence, when the ship arrives in a harbour, the society starts a completely different conversation around abortions,” she explains and remembers the “Women on Waves” mission to Portugal in 2004.

You rarely hear a defense minister talking about abortions

Back then, the Portuguese defense minister Paulo Portas had sent a military marine unit to obstruct the ship from entering the country under the pretext of national security. Up to 2007, abortion in Portugal was only legal in cases of threat to the mother’s health, foetal birth defects and rape. Despite the obstruction, the organisation did not see the mission as a failure. “You rarely hear a defence minister talking about abortions,” observes Hazal.

Drone campaigns have a similar effect. “In 2016 we flew a drone from Ireland to Northern Ireland, both of which had serious abortion restrictions back then. Most of the time women are not associated with the use of such technologies, but we got on the cover page of a technology magazine. That isn’t our usual audience,” she adds smiling.

A red light every 6 minutes

Art offers another powerful way to mainstream the organisations’ work and communicate the importance of reproductive health. Perhaps this comes as no surprise, since R. Gomperts holds a degree both in medicine and in visual art studies. The “A-portable”, the mobile gynaecological clinic used by the “Women on Waves” ship, embodies the fusion of these two fields. Designed in 2001 by Dutch artist and sculptor Joep van Lieshout, it was exhibited in the Venice Biennale the same year.

In 2014, Diana Whitten directed a documentary film about the organisation named “Vessel”, which toured film festivals across the world. Also, since 2003, the organisation has collaborated with the artist Willem Velthoven in creating interdisciplinary projects. One of them exhibits clothing items with a note “I had an abortion” in several languages, hung on wire hangers, which represent an unsafe way of terminating pregnancy. In another installation, a poignant red lamp flashes every six minutes, symbolising the number of women dying from an illegal abortion.

It’s very difficult to beat algorithms

When asked about challenges, Hazal responds swiftly: “Our biggest opportunities and issues stem from social media networks”. In September 2020, Twitter blocked the “Women on Web” South Korean account without a prior warning or explanation. Currently, the local government is deciding whether to discard the universal abortion ban that has been in place since 1953 and legalise the procedure within a 14-week term.

Earlier this year, after Google updated its search algorithms, “Women on Web” observed a 90% decrease in their website visitor traffic. “Google argues that its criteria for search visibility are neutral. This is not true. Say, Google trusts what governments determine, and some governments have banned our content. But does this really mean we are not trustworthy?” Hazal sighs and adds, “It’s very difficult to beat algorithms.”

However, as she explains, “Women on Web” finds ways to be active even where their website is blocked: “Women in Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, Brazil, and elsewhere where our content is unavailable, can download our application and receive direct consultations there.”

This is a universal fight

“This is a universal fight,” concludes Hazal and shares a personal example. Before living in Europe, where she pursues a doctoral degree at Sciences Po, Hazal worked with a local collective in Turkey, similar to the “Ciocia Basia” network in Berlin. The collective offered support to women travelling from Lebanon, Jordan, Morocco and elsewhere to Turkey to terminate pregnancies. Despite anti-abortion remarks voiced by the current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling party, refusal from numerous governmental clinics to provide the procedure, and often unaffordable prices in private clinics, since 1983 abortion in Turkey has been legal up to the 10th week.

Whether in Poland or Saudi Arabia, in Turkey or Brazil: “women should decide for themselves”, concludes Hazal. “Not their governments, the church or the mosque”.

Cover photo: Vivianna Maria Stanislavska |

  • retro

    Beatričė is a Lithuania-raised Summa Cum Laude Master in Human Rights from Sciences Po Paris, disguised as @bea.promeneuse online. Ieva just finished her Masters in Amsterdam and moved back to her native Kaunas, Lithuania, where she spends most of her time wandering around and thinking about future projects.

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