Niederlande: Rebecca Gomperts

Many women are dying because they are 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.

— Rebecca Gomperts

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.

A sailor’s worst fear is to run into stormy waters. But Rebecca Gomperts’ life, both on and off ships, has been marked by her fearlessness in the face of these storms. In her fight to defend women’s most basic human rights, she has taken on governments, the media, and anti-abortion groups, regardless of the threats and obstacles they put in her way. The turning point in Rebecca’s life came in her late twenties. A medical doctor, she embarked on a life-changing stint of working aboard a Greenpeace ship around South America: “In Latin America, I listened to appalling stories about the desperate measures women take when they cannot have abortions legally. They are dying because they are being denied the right to decide about their bodies and whether and when they want to have children.” The more research she did, the more resolute she became to help prevent women from dying every six minutes as a result of an unsafe, illegal abortion. It took a huge leap of imagination for Rebecca to hatch her extraordinary idea of offering safe, legal abortions aboard a ship in international waters. Like most brilliant schemes, it was shot down in flames by those who first heard it and it triggered fierce debates around the world. “I suddenly realized that ideas are dangerous. Anti-abortion groups were sending threats and I was very scared. But this injustice was crawling under my skin and would not let go.” Six years on, Rebecca’s ship has sailed out to three countries where abortions are illegal, despite every possible attempt to stop her. Each trip has profoundly influenced the way abortion is discussed and has empowered local women’s organizations to get the issue on their country’s political agenda. “The ship will never be able to help all the women who need it. But we can inform them and we have greatly influenced the way abortion is perceived. And this is just the beginning.”

Women on Waves