Nov 9, 2015

Making a Splash in the Irish Abortion Debate

Jane Fallon Griffin chats to Dr Rebecca Gomperts, founder and director of controversial Dutch abortion rights group Women on Waves.

Laura Finnegan for The University Times
Jane Fallon GriffinMagazine Editor

Recently, women across all areas of Irish life have begun to give harrowing, personal, and very public accounts of their abortions. Newspapers regularly feature stories of Irish women, from young teens to mothers, who have had some form of abortion. All of these women have one thing in common: at one point in their lives they all found themselves pregnant, shrouded in a cloak of desperation and fear, at the heart of one of the most controversial issues in our country’s recent history. That they have shared their stories publicly, however, seems to have gone some way towards allowing them to cast off the weighty taboo associated with the issue. They describe a dark time, a time of fear when their own country could offer little to console them. These women either ran into the arms of a country better suited to dealing with their situation or they took the law into their own hands, using gruesome methods despite the huge personal risk involved.

Long before I knew the meaning of the word “abortion”, a fellow student in primary school informed me that to get rid of a baby, women sat in a bath of hot water and drank whisky. Usually such extraordinary tales would be disproved after our schooldays – dismissed as tall tales. With abortion this is not the case. Coat hangers, weights, over-the-counter drugs and physical exertion have all been employed over the years in attempts to abort in Irish homes. In response to this, a boat sailed into the Irish Sea in 2001, staffed by the volunteers of Dutch organisation Women on Waves. Weaving their way through logistical and legal loopholes, they tried to wriggle free from strict Irish abortion laws in an attempt to provide a temporary abortion service to Irish women off the coast of their own country.

Dr Rebecca Gomperts founded the Dutch-based women’s health group Women on Waves in 1999. For the past sixteen years, the group has sought to fulfill its mission statement on both land and sea, aiming to “prevent unsafe abortions and unwanted pregnancies by providing sexual health services including early medical abortions with pills on board a Dutch ship outside the territorial waters of countries where abortion is illegal.” Despite beginning her medical career in an abortion clinic, the international abortion debate was not a conversation Gomperts found herself desperate to engage in. The medicine and visual arts graduate is confused when asked what attracted her to the post, in the kind of clinic the average Irish person would assume to be universally controversial. “In the Netherlands it’s not a controversial profession, [it is] a kind of doctor… I coincidentally started working in an abortion clinic” she says, attempting to convey the entirely different Dutch attitude towards abortion and professionals working in the area. Like most doctors, she states that the ability to help people is the pinnacle of job satisfaction and is what drives her to continue to work in the field: “I found it very rewarding work because women are usually quite anxious and they feel they have a big problem… I felt I could really help women, tremendously so.” It was not from this initial interaction with abortion services that the grassroots for Women on Waves stemmed, but conversely, on board Greenpeace ship, Rainbow Warrior, on a voyage to South America. Gomperts witnessed the difficulty Latin American women had in obtaining safe abortions and could not move past the issue. She states simply how the group was founded: “I discussed this issue with my fellow crew members on the boat and this was the idea that came up.”


For Gomperts, the issue of legalisation is not limited exclusively to the right to end a pregnancy, but is also yet another rung on the ladder to achieving global socio-economic equality. She sees it as “a human rights problem in the countries where abortion is still very restricted”. It was this manifestation of injustice in a medical setting which drew the doctor into the ranks of the international brigade of men and women campaigning against restrictive abortion laws: “Social injustice, I think that is what draws me to this issue very much. I feel very strongly about social justice and it’s only the women that have no information that have no access to money that are affected by these laws. Women that have information and money they can travel to other countries or there is doctors that will help them despite [that] it’s illegal”.

“Extraordinary tales would be disproved after our schooldays – dismissed as tall tales. With abortion this is not the case.”

For many, a major concern regarding the potential easing of abortion laws in Ireland is the fear that the procedure would become more of a contraceptive measure than last resort. When this opinion is put to Gomperts she dismisses it at once, maintaining that a woman desperate for an abortion will have one regardless of legality: “There has been so much research has shown that legalising abortion does not lead to more abortions. What it does is it makes them available for everybody equally and not distinguishing between whether you are rich or poor”.

Gomperts points out that, just as many are not in favour of the term “pro-life”, deeming it to be misleading, she does not use the term “pro-choice”. “I think for a lot of women abortion is not a choice. It’s a decision that you have to make in the circumstances and when you say choice it’s like ‘oh, I can do this or I can do that’. Well, at that point, women only have one option and one decision to make, and that’s to have an abortion”. Of her own stance on the issue she says “it’s not that I am advocating for abortion”, saying instead that she campaigns to highlight that it is “a medical need. Women need this service whatever anybody else thinks of it. Whatever I think of it personally, what is important is that women have access to safe abortion when they need it”. Like most involved in the sexual health industry, she believes that rather than making abortion illegal, the most sustainable benefit lies in education. “The Netherlands is one of the countries that has the least abortions in the world, and why is that? Because there is access to good sex education in the schools and there is free available contraceptives”. This results in a low level of unwanted pregnancies and thus minimal demand for abortion services.

Despite its illegal status here, it is clearly not due to a lack of demand on the part of Ireland’s citizens. A report published by the British government in June of this year charting the demand for abortion in 2014, showed that of the 5,521 abortions provided to non-English and Welsh residents, 68 percent of these women were from the Republic of Ireland. Women on Waves are not so much concerned with this percentage that can afford to travel to Britain for an abortion, but rather the hidden figure – the number of Irish women who could not afford to travel and so undertook an abortion at home. It is the predicaments of these women that guide the organisation’s course of action and the reason that they have essentially become a distribution service.

Despite now referring to themselves as Women on Web alongside Women on Waves, due to the nature of their distribution of abortion pills via the internet, the organisation’s initial movements were carried out at sea. Boats crewed by volunteers sailed to various countries, meeting women, spreading advice about contraceptives and sailing pregnant women outside their country’s borders and administering the abortion pill. The legal loophole that allows them to do so is that ships registered to Dutch authorities may carry out abortions up to 6.5 weeks outside Dutch territory and territorial waters where the procedure is illegal. However, they now see the boat campaigns as a rare occurrence as they are both costly and time consuming, given that they rent the ships used on such voyages: “We only do it in a country when there is an opportunity to change the debate to change public perception, to change the law.” She explains the impact that the boat has: “It can change public perception where it can break the taboo. Because what the ship does is it’s making the problem visible. It cannot solve the problem. It makes it very visible and now it’s very invisible: women are suffering by themselves at home”. She finishes: “The ship really shows that there are women that need the service.”

“Boats crewed by volunteers sailed to various countries, meeting women, spreading advice about contraceptives”

The last boat campaign took place in Morocco in 2012. There the organisation felt that women were not aware of the over-the-counter drug that was widely available to end a pregnancy and thus the presence of the boat sought to highlight this and spread information. Despite having visited Ireland in 2001, the organisation has no plans for a return trip. Gomperts puts this down to the colossal change in Irish public opinion in recent years: “I was back in Ireland a year ago and the situation in Ireland has changed dramatically these past fifteen years. There’s so much more movement now to get it legalised and so much more voice that people are so much less silenced. The taboo there was amazing. I mean, we opened the telephone number that women could call and it was illegal at that time to refer women to clinics in England!” She continues: “There is so much local mobilisation that you know a ship cannot add anything at this point.” However, what is important to note about this trip to Ireland is that there was much opposition, even including bomb threats, and eventually the organisation were prevented from continuing with their Irish intentions due to the Republic’s boat licensing laws. Interestingly, Gomperts did not reveal this information herself in her interview. Rather, contemporary media coverage paints a picture of conflict with licensing laws and technicalities, whereby women who were brought onto the boat did not take pills but instead received other information about contraception and sexual health.

In recent years, the organisation has become better known for its distribution of abortion pills than its boat program. Toilet doors all over the country are now branded with a white sticker with a red dot at its core and Women on Web contact details written alongside the title “Safe Abortion with Pills”. Even on this small sticker, in quite a crude manner, the Irish abortion debate rages on. Writing on these ads, some claim to have taken the pills, encouraging others to follow suit, while others warn fellow women not to use the pills they buy online and others argue about the moral issues of ending a pregnancy.

Whatever the case, it seems that many Irish women are in fact making use of what is on offer. With regards to the stickers and who puts them up in toilets like the ones in our own university, she says: “I don’t know who put up the stickers but what I think is interesting here is that people see the availability of the abortion pill as a political and as an activist role. It gives them a way to be an activist to really help women with this information.”

Gomperts highlights the issues not only with the boat docking in Ireland but also with the goods arriving through our postal system: “The Irish medicines board stops all pharmaceuticals that come into Ireland by mail. It doesn’t matter what medicines they are.” She explains how when women contact them they try to “see what is the best solution for their situation” and she explains that for some “it is better to travel to the UK. Some women decide to continue their pregnancies some have miscarriages and some need a medical abortion and so they can have friends in Northern Ireland or they find another way to get it to them… There are different ways that women can do it through Northern Ireland”. Recently, a number of Southern women travelled to the North and collected a batch of the pills, bringing them back on the train arriving into Connolly station. Gomperts explains that the reason no arrests were made and the reason this was possible is because the law “doesn’t criminalise women for bringing in the medicines. It’s doing the abortion itself.” She continues: “it’s not getting the medicine which is the problem – it’s the moment the women use it when they are pregnant”.

The organisation provides information on aborting at home using a drug called Misoprostol, often used for the prevention of gastric ulcers. Arthrotec can also be used, which usually relieves pain associated with joints and arthritis. The procedure involves placing tablets under the tongue in three stages each for an exact period of time, and it leads to miscarriage. They state that it is effective 90 per cent of the time.

There is, however, something deeply unsettling about the section of the website dedicated to homemade abortions. The website carries advice on how to trick pharmacists into providing the drug. It even offers advice on methods of deception, “say that your grandmother has rheumatoid arthritis so severely she can not go to the pharmacy herself and that you do not have the money to pay for a doctor to get the prescriptions for the tablets”. It continues on informing the reader that, “usually one can expect more luck at the smaller pharmacies that do not belong to a chain.” There is even a sample prescription, should women choose to attempt to forge their own, as well as advice on knowing how legit medicine bought on the black market is. Perhaps most troubling however, is their advice on what to do if something goes wrong. They advise women to tell hospital workers that they are having a miscarriage. When questioned about the ethical nature of this advice, Gomperts is firm: “In Ireland they can go to jail for fourteen years. They can go to jail for fourteen years. You cannot tell a woman to say that she had an abortion knowing that she risks going to jail for fourteen years”.

“the situation in Ireland has changed dramatically these past fifteen years. There’s so much more movement now to get it legalised”

In response to questions on issue, Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA) Chief Executive, Niall Behan, said the association “knows from its counselling services that many of our clients seek the abortion pill online as an alternative to travelling to another state to access abortion services.” He notes: “These are often women without the resources to travel for an abortion – in particular young women, women in poverty or on low income, and migrant women with travel restrictions”. He echoes Gomperts concerns regarding the legal implications of abortion in the country and the discouraging impact this has on women: “The maximum penalty for inducing an illegal abortion in Ireland is 14 years imprisonment. While the health risks associated with medical abortion are minimal and occur rarely, the chilling effect of Ireland’s abortion laws means that should complications arise, many women may not seek medical care due to fear of prosecution”. Though the IFPA does not recommend the abortion pill, it does encourage women to go for follow up care if they take it: “Like most medications, the abortion pill is designed to be taken under medical supervision. As a health provider, the IFPA does not support the self-administration of the abortion pill as a substitute to safe and legal abortion services in Ireland”.

Regardless of the ongoing controversy here in Ireland, the group have moved their attention to other areas. Right now they are working with Syrian refugees in Turkey. In refugee camps without access to services and given that abortion is illegal in Syria, women can’t decide if they would like to terminate the pregnancy. Women on Waves are distributing condoms and pills among the women and offering advice.

While the debate on abortion is intensifying and as whispers of an abortion referendum flit around the country, many of our fellow citizens cannot wait long enough for this public feeling to bubble over and for action to be taken. Even as you read this piece today, there are frightened women on a journey to England while others frantically scour the web for solutions. Others are desperately hoping that their pregnancy test was faulty, only too aware of the consequences if it’s not. Worse still, other women are online, placing their trust in a pill not permitted by their government or medical board, weighing up the risks, while the most desperate of women wonder if those old wives tales of coat hangers and ballpoint pens are viable options. Regardless of what you think of the Women on Waves organisation or your stance on the abortion issue, when the situation affects people like this it is understandable that in desperate times, women go to desperate measures.

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