News broke over the weekend that a woman was forced to bear her rapist’s child having been denied an abortion after going on hunger strike. Tracy Brown Hamilton chatted to Rebecca Gomperts of Woman On Waves about how Ireland’s laws are failing women.
Dr. Rebecca Gomperts, 47, is the founder and director of Women on Waves, an organization that, among other things sails a ship to countries where pregnancy termination is prohibited and offers non-surgical abortions beyond territorial waters.“It’s ridiculous,” Gomperts says.
“Women are dying and suffering health problems. Human rights are being violated. It was bad before, but now it’s worse. This policy won’t help women.”
In 2001, Women on Waves launched their first ship campaign – to Ireland.
“There is a very dedicated pro-choice community there,” Gomperts says, “and they were very interested in the project.”
The number of women who sought Gomperts’ services exceeded anyone’s expectations.
“The groups we worked with said, ‘no woman is going to come to a ship for an abortion’,” Gomperts recalls. “But we had 80 calls immediately, and realized we had not brought enough pills.”
Those who responded included women who had been raped, schoolgirls who could not find a feasible excuse to go to England for a couple of days, mothers who could not afford childcare while away in England, and political refugees who did not have the papers to travel.
In the end, because they did not have two necessary licenses from the Dutch and Irish authorities — one for operating medical facilities and the other for carrying passengers to sea – Women on Waves was unable to distribute the abortion pill.
Regardless, hundreds of Irish women continued to reach out to Gomperts for help.
According to Gomperts, the abortion pill – mifepristone and misoprostol – can be safely used to terminate pregnancies up to 12 weeks at home, without medical supervision.
“The World Health Organisation has published guidelines that say women can do this,” she says. “So there is no need for surgical abortion anymore. The only issue is getting women access to the pills.”
To that end, Gomperts has created an international network to help women around the world find a means of getting the abortion pill.
“We are not selling drugs,” she clarifies. “We are a referral service; we help women get a medical abortion at home. But they risk prosecution if it’s illegal in their country.”
And under Ireland’s new abortion policy, punishment has become stricter.
“The sentence for such an ‘illegal’ abortion in Ireland used to be three years,” Gomperts says, “and now they have made it twelve years.”
The new law also removes the possibility of suicide risk as a means of permitting legal abortions.
“Of course it was already problematic if you are forcing someone to say they are suicidal just to obtain an abortion,” she says, “but now even that is not allowed.”
Gomperts strongly opposes claims that abortion can lead to mental distress or illness. “There have been lots of scientific studies published in major journals,” she says, “that show there is no link between depression or suicide and abortion. None.”
Statistics of women who express regret after terminating a pregnancy can be misconstrued, Gomperts finds.
“Our data shows that 1 percent of women regret it,” she says.
“But a lot of women mean they regret being in the position to begin with. That’s different.” Gomperts has encountered many women who have been surprised to find themselves opting for termination.
“They tell me, ‘I am against abortion, but my situation is different,’” she says. “It takes a certain degree of empathy to extend that reasoning to other people, or to realize that perhaps you are not against abortion after all.”
People are too judgmental about abortion, Gomperts says. “For me, it’s obvious that it’s a selfless decision,” she says.
“There are women who, if they had the right conditions, may make a different choice. But when women really find they don’t have what it takes to raise a child in a good situation, then abortion is a very moral decision.”
Gomperts, who has two children, says she is a doctor first and an activist second.
“As a doctor, I’m here to aid in the well being of people,” she says.
“And if you want to make sure that the well being of women is being guaranteed, you have to legalize abortion. For me it’s completely about social justice. The problem with many health issues today, including abortion, is that it comes down to who has the means to access the care.”
For her, in Ireland and elsewhere, it is an issue that goes beyond questioning the morality of abortion.
“It has to do with the role of women in society,” she says.
“What we see now in Turkey is the population has declined because women are getting more education and are having fewer children, so access to contraception is limited. So women are used for political purposes. Women are instruments.”
But Gomperts does not dismiss the feelings of people who, because of their moral or religious convictions, disagree with abortion.
“I understand there are those who sincerely believe that life starts at conception and that the life without a voice needs to be protected,” she says.
“I don’t think a fetus is an independent life form. And if you really sincerely believe that, then you are valuing the life of the fetus over the woman. But it’s a belief. It’s not a science. And in a society you can’t impose these kinds of beliefs on other people.”
She says with this issue, feelings override evidence, and it’s dangerous.
“It’s not about facts; it’s about emotions,” Gomperts says.
“And the consequences in Ireland are very apparent again when hundreds of babies’ corpses are found on the grounds of former homes for unwed mothers. That is the result of this kind of policy and restrictive law. And that people cannot make that connection is unbelievable.”