Rebecca Gomperts plans to call her ship Sea Change. Should her floating fantasy become reality, she’ll be operating a 50-meter shipboard women’s clinic that would be a lifesaver for women who do not have access to safe, legal abortions. Starting next year, Gomperts, a Dutch physician, wants to perform abortions onboard while the ship sails in international waters, 12 miles off the shore of countries that prohibit the procedure. Here’s how she envisions it working: “Sea Change will dock at various ports, picking up women at dockside, or the ship will anchor offshore and ferry the women from the dock to the ship by a small boat.” She intends to take the ship to waters off South America, Africa, and Asia but says it’s too risky to disclose particular countries. At some ports, she will also dispense contraceptives and train local abortion providers.
At press time, this radical scheme was very deep in uncharted waters. Gomperts first has to pony up the bucks to launch the project–$1 million (U.S.) to buy and outfit the ship and $500,000 a year to operate it. At this writing, Gomperts’ foundation, Women on Waves, had just $50,000 in its coffers.
Still, her plan has sparked the imagination of activists around the world. “I was captured by the idea of Women on Waves,” says Rebecca Cook, a legal scholar and World Health Organization committee member. “If more women took these kinds of risks, we’d all be better off.” It is, in fact, a big risk. Gomperts acknowledges that antiabortion extremists could pose threats but argues that “a ship clinic is less vulnerable to attack than a fixed, land-based clinic.” She plans to install surveillance systems and hire security guards while in port. “There will also be bulletproof vests for doctors and patients,” she says.
If Gomperts’ tone is fearless, perhaps it’s because she served as a physician on Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior, the boat sunk by the French government ten years ago because it was challenging that country’s nuclear interests.
After leaving the Warrior, Gomperts served as an abortion provider in the Netherlands, and visited clinics worldwide. In Panama, she met a teen who had become a sex worker to support her child. Gomperts says this encounter “would have been enough to make an activist out of most sensitive women.”
U.S. groups like Catholics for a Free Choice support the plan, but it has also sparked debate. “The first thought everybody has is that the ship will be sunk,” Gomperts says. And some women’s groups have complained that the ship will be “neocolonialist” because it will be staffed by white Europeans, serving women from the Global South. But Gomperts argues that she plans to work with local groups.
Anika Rahman, director of international programs at the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, also questions the wisdom of the project: “Her boat will raise red flags in every country it travels to,” she says.
But Gomperts says her main worry is the possibility that women who’ve gotten shipboard abortions may be prosecuted in their own countries. According to Rebecca Cook, some countries that criminalize abortion apply criminal law even in international waters. Although Cook believes many countries would not bring criminal charges, both she and Gomperts acknowledge that the issue of legal sanctions remains a big question mark that can’t be answered until the ship is afloat.
Questions aside, it’s the sheer audacity of the idea that has thrilled Gomperts’ supporters. “She’s Doctors Without Borders for women,” says Cook. “I really think she may join the ranks of the reproductive pioneers of the twentieth century.”