Inspiring Thursday: Rebecca Gomperts

Dr. Rebecca Gomperts is the Founder and Director of Women on Waves and Women on Web, two non-profit organisations providing help and information on safe abortion and contraception. After completing a Masters in Public Policy at Princeton University and a PhD at Karolinska Institutet, Rebecca became an abortion doctor and environmental activist sailing with the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior. Encountering many women who suffered due to lack of access to reproductive health services is what led Rebecca to start Women on Waves in 1999, to help prevent unsafe abortions and empower women to exercise their human rights. Registered as a charitable organisation, Women on Waves began organising ships to provide contraceptives, information, training, workshops, and safe abortion services outside territorial waters in countries where abortion is illegal. As 12 miles off the coast of a country is considered international waters, the ships are legally allowed to provide abortion and contraceptive services as the local laws no longer apply.

Women on Wave’s first Abortion Ship campaign in June 2011 was to the Republic of Ireland which then held the most restrictive abortion law in Europe, on request from several Irish abortion rights organisations. The goal was to provide reproductive health services on a ship outside Ireland’s territorial waters as well as highlight the hypocrisy of the Irish abortion situation and build coalitions of legislative reform. Over 300 women contacted the ship’s hotline and many others visited the ship to receive services or show their support for the initiative and given that the visit to Ireland created front-page news all over the world, the campaign was undeniably a success. Following Abortion Ship campaigns included sailing to Poland (2003), Portugal (2004), Spain (2008), Morocco (2012), Guatemala (2017) and Mexico (2007).

In 2015, Women on Waves launched a new campaign, the Abortion Drone, whose mission was to fly abortion pills from one country to women in another country. The first destination was Poland and although the German police tried to stop the drones from crossing the German/Polish border, the drone pilots managed to land the drones on polish soil. Although the medicines used for a medical abortion, mifepristone and misoprostol, have been on the list of essential medicines of the WHO since 2005 and are available in Germany and almost all other European countries, it is still not registered in Poland. The campaign received large media coverage allowing for a second campaign in 2016 from the Republic of Ireland to Northern Ireland. Women on Waves also developed an Abortion Robot which, similarly to other campaigns, seeks to deliver abortion pills through legal means. As the robot operates from the Netherlands it is not breaking any laws by supplying abortion pills to women in countries where abortion services are illegal.

Rebecca also launched Women on Web in 2005 as an online abortion care platform available to women and people around the world. Comprising of a team of medical doctors, researchers, activists, and help desk members, Women on Web allows people who need a safe abortion or contraception to receive online consultation without discrimination or alienation. Supervised by medical doctors, the help desk operates in 16 languages and provides medical abortion pills as well as contraceptives by mail directly to those in need. The website also encourages women to speak out and share their abortion stories to help break the abortion stigma and taboo through the “I had an abortion” project.

As if all this wasn’t enough, Rebecca also launched Aid Access in 2018 which consists of a committed team of doctors, activists and advocates for abortion rights who provide access to medical abortions by mail in the United States. This initiative emerged after Rebecca witnesses a growing number of women in the United States contacting Women on Web for abortion services, who could not be helped as the platform only operates in countries where abortions are illegal. However, with increasing restrictions to accessing safe and affordable abortions in most states in the United States, ensuring abortion services remain available to all women became an important issue for Rebecca. In September 2019, Rebecca filed a complaint against the FDA for seizing packages containing abortions drugs which were sent to patients seeking to end their pregnancy.

Rebecca has received widespread recognition for her ground-breaking work including the MS Women on the Year 2001 award, the Women making History award by Planned Parenthood of New York City 2002, the Margaret Sanger Woman of Valor award 2004 and the Global Women’s Rights Awards 2007, Feminist Majority Foundation 2007 as well as Women deliver 100: the most inspiring people delivering for girls and women 2011. She was named as one of the global thinkers 2015 by Foreign Policy.
Let us be inspired by the amazing work of Dr. Rebecca Gomperts which highlights the importance of trusting women to make decisions about their bodies and allowing them to conduct medical abortions on their own.

Written by WAVE Intern Léa Dudouet

Image from:–md–mpp–phd