Rebecca Gomperts – Netherlands

Linked with Women on Waves, and with An Interview with Rebecca Gomperts.

She is one of the 1000 women proposed for the Nobel Peace Price 2005.

She says: “Induced abortions are one of the most common medical interventions in the world: out of around 46 million abortions performed annually, 20 million are illegal and unsafe”. (1000PeaceWomen).

Working as a ship’s doctor on Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior, as a freelance abortion doctor in several clinics and the writing of the novel Flotsam are only some examples of this. Her three talents come together expressly in her latest iniative, the founding of Women on Waves, a Dutch non-profit organisation devoted to the cause of women’s rights and health. (full text).

She says also: “Of course I realized when I got back how many problems I would come across if I wanted to put this idea into practice. But the more research I did, the more this issue crawled under my skin and would not let go. So many women are dying and being denied the most fundamental part of human existence, namely to decide about their autonomy, their bodies, whether and when they want to have children”. (1000PeaceWomen).

Rebecca Gomperts - Netherlands rogné redim 80p.jpg

Rebecca Gomperts – Netherlands

She works for Women on Waves.

Read: I had an abortion. (full text).

Read: Rebecca Gomperts Is Trying to Save the World for Abortion. (full text).

Rebecca Gomperts works with local women’s groups to prevent unsafe abortions and empower women to exercise their human rights to physical and mental autonomy. In 1999, Rebecca Gomperts founded the organization, Women on Waves, which operates a mobile abortion clinic on a ship. Despite threats and protests from anti-abortion groups and governments, it has sailed to various countries where abortions are illegal. While in harbor, the ship provides contraceptives, information, and counseling. After sailing into international waters, early medical abortions are provided safely in the clinic.

“I rethought my motivations and what I wanted from life. And it was this that led me to become an abortion doctor, at the same time as applying to work for Greenpeace”, she says.

As a child, Rebecca Gomperts had always dreamt of being able to help those in need. But it took a huge leap of imagination to hatch her explosive idea to help women in countries where abortions are illegal. Surmounting every possible obstacle, Rebecca was able to fulfill her dream of setting sail on one of the world’s most controversial ships: a floating abortion clinic.

Born in Suriname in 1966, Rebecca grew up in the small Dutch harbor-town of Vlissingen. After high school, she began studying medicine and visual arts in Amsterdam. After specializing in surgery and radiology, the young doctor decided to retrain to become an abortion provider, as a way of helping women.

Her stint as a crew member on a Greenpeace ship marked a turning point in her life.

During her months sailing around Latin America aboard the Rainbow Warrior ship, Rebecca was horrified by the stories she heard from women who had suffered immeasurably because of lack of access to reproductive health services.

“When I got to Mexico I was totally ignorant about the situation there. When I started talking to women and doctors, I was shocked and touched by these stories of unwanted pregnancies, and what had happened to friends and family members”, she recalls. “So that is how it started”. As Rebecca traveled around Ecuador, Nicaragua and other Latin American nations, she continued her investigations into women’s reproductive health. “I was talking a lot to people on the boat and slowly this idea of a ship operating in international territorial waters started to form”.

According to the World Health Organization, a woman dies every six minutes as a result of an unsafe abortion. By the time she returned to the Netherlands in 1997, Rebecca?s plan had crystallized: to create a floating clinic providing the abortion pill safely and legally outside territorial waters of countries where abortion is illegal.

Rebecca began by contacting the Dutch-based non-governmental organization (NGO), Mama Cash, which helped her get in touch with a network of contacts and other NGOs.

It was almost by accident that Rebecca’s idea for a floating clinic was launched into the public domain, triggering a flurry of debates. A journalist interviewing Rebecca about her recently-published novel, “Zeedrift,” had asked her about her ambitions, and she had told all. In search of a scoop, the journalist then asked the Dutch Minister for Development for her reaction to the floating clinic. “That was when the news broke and there were questions in parliament. I remember coming home one day and my answering machine was full of requests for interviews from journalists”.

This was a terrifying moment for Rebecca, who had never before dealt with the press. But the publicity also brought good things: the Development Minister pledged some financial support for the clinic, as did some private donors and NGOs.

This was enough of an incentive for Rebecca to found her own NGO, Women on Waves, in 1999. Thereafter, her life turned into a whirlwind of activity, with the doctor doing a few hours of medical work to survive financially, squeezed in between fundraising, research and learning about international maritime law.

In the midst of all this activity, something happened that propelled Rebecca into the full glare of the global media. The international press had speculated that Rebecca would want to send her ‘as yet non-existent’ ship to the island of Malta, before she had even been given a chance to seriously consider the idea! “There was then a huge debate in Malta, involving the Prime Minister and the Archbishop [who were expecting my arrival], which was splashed across the International Herald Tribune.

But at that stage I had not yet organized a thing! And I suddenly realized that ideas are dangerous, and that people were taking me seriously. And while I was scared, it made me believe all the more in what I was doing”.

During that time, there were also storms of protests from anti-abortion groups. Rebecca says she is grateful for this fierce reaction, which raised the profile of the project, even though she still cannot accept the arguments of her opponents. “I simply do not understand why people would want to impose their views in such a way on others and really force them to risk their lives and health, it is such a fundamental right that they want to take away”.

By December 2000, Rebecca had just about scraped together enough funds for the project, though she was forced to revise her plan of buying her own boat. Instead, it would be a question of hiring a boat for a few weeks and equipping it with a mobile treatment clinic and a dozen or so crew members.

Ireland, with its restrictive abortion laws and within easy reach of the Netherlands, would be the first port of call for the boat, especially as Irish abortion rights groups had already pledged their support. “I was totally inexperienced in managing a group of people and running the whole thing. A lot of things went wrong. The media attention was overwhelming. And we still had not had our abortion license from the health authorities, but the biggest hurdle was that the Dutch Government suddenly said that if we sailed out of Holland, we would be breaking the law. I knew that was not the case because there is a loophole that allows you to administer the abortion pill to women who are under six-and-a-half weeks pregnant. We have always worked within the law”.

But the damage was done. The Government’s opposition threw the whole legality of the project into doubt.

And just as the ship set sail in June 2001, prominent Dutch politicians withdrew their support. Worse still, the Irish groups threatened to pull out of the project unless Rebecca agreed not to carry out abortions during the ship’s 12 days on Irish shores. “For me, it meant the end. It was so frustrating because the hotline we opened in Ireland was already inundated with calls from women who wanted our help. We had to content ourselves with giving out lots of information and we tried to raise funds for women who could not afford to go to England for abortions. But we could not give abortions during our time in Ireland”.

Rebecca tried to console herself with the thought that the ship had at least raised awareness of the topic of abortion, just ahead of a national referendum. “Everybody was talking about abortion rights, and it made news all over the world”. The referendum proposed making abortion laws stricter, with women going to prison for terminating a pregnancy. The vote in 2002 was narrowly defeated, women’s groups believe this was largely because of the new lease on life the ship gave the movement in Ireland.

On her return from Ireland, Rebecca began a long legal fight with the Dutch authorities to get a license to administer first-trimester abortions while in international waters. This license has still not been granted and the battle continues. But the doctor did get the official go-ahead from the Dutch Minister of Health to give out the abortion pill within the first six-and-a half weeks of pregnancy.

Rebecca then chose Poland as her next target. “We still did not have much money but we knew we could reach Poland in three days by boat, and we had supportive women’s groups there”. Although abortions used to be legal in Poland, the Government, under pressure from the Roman Catholic Church, overturned the law a decade ago. The number of illegal abortions in Poland is estimated at between 40,000 to 80,000 a year. “There is a lot of hypocrisy, because doctors do carry out abortions after hours and charge a lot for them, but never speak out for women’s rights. It is astounding how much the situation has deteriorated in a decade”, Rebecca explains.

The ship’s arrival in the summer of 2003 was greeted with eggs and paint from anti-abortion groups. For the first time, abortion was openly discussed in the media.

And despite facing an unending series of hurdles, including attempts to stop the ship from docking, the crew was able to sail out three times to administer the abortion pill to women. “With all the delays on the way, we could only help a tiny fraction of those in need, but at least we were able to give them information and offer an alternative in the form of discounts from abortion clinics in Berlin and we directed many of the women there, though of course, not all of them could afford the cost of travel”.

According to a poll taken a year before the ship’s arrival, some 44 percent of Poles supported legalizing abortions. Two weeks after the ship left, this number jumped 12 percent, to 56 percent.

No sooner had Rebecca returned than another hectic round of fundraising and preparations began, this time for Portugal. “There is a big problem in Portugal because of the poverty. Two to five women die a year because of illegal abortions and 5,000 women a year are hospitalized”, says Rebecca.

Around 25 women have been persecuted in Portugal in the last five years for having terminations and one nurse has been convicted to over six years in prison for administering abortions.

It was in Portugal that the ship and its crew came up against their biggest hurdle so far. “Just as we were about to arrive in Portugal in 2004, the Portuguese Defense Minister ordered us to stop, saying we were a threat to national security. He just blocked us, in full contravention of international law. Again, there were a lot of debates, including in the European Council, and we tried to appeal his decision. But the court said it could not overturn a decision by the Portuguese Government. It was surreal: our small boat was being watched the whole time by two huge warships and our every move was recorded”.

When it became clear the ship would not be able to reach the Portuguese shore, the crew distributed information leaflets telling Portuguese women how they could safely induce an abortion themselves by acquiring a medication called Cytotec from some pharmacies.

Although pharmacists cannot legally give the tablets over the counter, they often do so to help those women. Rebecca also appeared on national television to encourage women with unwanted pregnancies to do this. “It was important for us to feel we could at least help women help themselves, no matter what the Government tried to do to prevent us”. The internet site of Women on Waves was also deluged with emails from women asking for advice and now gives out information in several different languages. Shortly after the boat left, the Portuguese Government fell. The new Socialist Government has pledged to put abortion among the top of its priorities.

Rebecca is working on new projects for Women on Waves, though has to keep these secret for security reasons. She has also just had her first child. (1000PeaceWomen).

Rebecca Gomperts, a medical doctor and founder of the abortion rights organization Women on Waves, received the Margaret Sanger- Woman of Valour Award from Planned Parenthood New York City on April 14. She received this award for providing outstanding contributions to the reproductive rights movement. (full text).

Casi al mismo tiempo que se lanzó la Campaña, el Ministro de Salud de la Nación, Ginés González García, volvió a declarar en un medio nacional (14/02/05, diario Página 12) que está a favor de la despenalización del aborto.
A raíz de estas declaraciones se sucedieron varias declaraciones significativas, la más favorable fue la del Ministro de Salud de la provincia de Santa Fe, Sylvestre Begnis, quien sostiene la misma postura que González García, pero declaró estar a favor de debatir el tema este año. (full text).

De eerste ‘held’ van de autonomie is Rebecca Gomperts. Zij is oprichtster van Women on Waves in de volksmond ook wel de ‘abortusboot’ genoemd. Maar Women on Waves doet meer. Rebecca Gomperts is niet alleen begaan met vrouwen die op ontzettende manieren hun zwangerschap beëindigen, maar doet er ook iets aan: Ze geeft voorlichting zodat vrouwen zwangerschappen kunnen voorkomen, geeft advies bij het afbreken van een zwangerschap in een land waar het illegaal is en zet waar nodig en mogelijk abortus op de politieke agenda. Daarnaast vaart zij uit om op buiten territoriale wateren legale abortussen uit te voeren. Kortom, Rebecca maakt een verschil. Women on waves is de enige organisatie ter wereld die vrouwen op deze manier helpt autonoom te zijn. (full text).

“Soy sólo una doctora”, dice Rebecca Gomperts, la médica especializada en abortos que en 1999 fundó Women on Waves, la ONG holandesa que navega con su clínica móvil hasta las costas de países en los que la interrupción del embarazo es ilegal. De paso por Buenos Aires, adonde llegó para comenzar a evaluar la posibilidad de anclar en la Argentina y encontrar una polvareda memorable, conversó con Las12 sobre estrategias y acciones políticas. (full text).

links:

Constant’s News;

Archbishop Gilbert’s Weekly Official & Engagements;

bard.edu;

and last but not least: the blog of the atheist jew.

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