New Waves for Abortion Access in European Decision

by Diana Whitten

Women on Waves, an organization that uses a ship to help women in countries where abortion is illegal, recently secured a major victory from the European Court of Human Rights. The court ruled in early February 2009 that Portugal violated Women on Waves’ freedom of expression when it ordered two warships to blockade the boat’s entry into the Portuguese harbor in 2004.

Women on Waves is a Dutch organization led by Dr. Rebecca Gomperts. Its ship sails to countries where abortion is illegal and transports women to international waters, 12 miles off the coast, where national laws do not apply and it is legal to provide safe medical abortions.

Of the five missions sailed in the past decade, Portugal was arguably the most successful because enough momentum was generated during the heated campaign to sway voters on shore to liberalize the abortion law. Abortion within the first 10 weeks of pregnancy has since been legalized in Portugal. This latest triumph in the courts suggests that Dr. Gomperts has identified a space of limitless potential in her use of the offshore, for both international abortion rights, and indeed for related struggles for social justice.

For example, in 2006, South Dakota Governor Mike Rounds signed a bill that would ban abortion in all instances, including rape and incest, an antediluvian condition presently in existence in only four countries on earth: Nicaragua, El Salvador, Malta, and Oman. His mission was to instigate a lawsuit that could potentially challenge Roe v. Wade in a conservatively stocked U.S.Supreme Court. Rather than sue, Planned Parenthood of South Dakota collected the signatures to refer the law to a ballot vote by the population under a referendum procedure in that state. While in debate, Cecilia Fire-Thunder, the first female chief of the Ogala Sioux tribe, announced that if the anti-abortion provision became law, she would build an abortion clinic on Sioux land — land outside of the jurisdiction of state. She began gathering signatures and donations for the effort. The people of South Dakota voted against the referred law by a 55-44 margin. But in the interim, the Sioux removed Chief Fire Thunder from office, suggesting that her claim was outside of the limits of her authority. Her action was significant, however, in that she, like Gomperts, identified an “offshore” space that could be occupied and used as a legal platform from which to challenge law, using direct action.

Following suit, several provocative and revolutionary ideas arise. Could embassies of countries where abortion is legal provide RU-486 to residents in countries that prohibit its use? How subject to international navigation laws are intrastate rivers — could a riverboat function similarly to Gomperts’s ship? Could the same apply to rivers that cut through U.S. states like Mississippi, which has extensive restrictions on abortion access?

Pirate radio found its home in offshore havens, could similarly housed radio broadcasts be used to broadcast the accurate dosage of Cytotec, a drug frequently used in Latin American and other countries for self-abortion? If every abortion provider added an Internet abortion pill service to its website, would antiquated and dangerous laws be relegated into obscurity?

Dr. Gomperts innovative use of space, science, and especially law, has much to inspire a global activist community. The recent attention by the European Court opens Pandora’s Box further by categorizing Portugal’s action as a violation of the freedom of expression. With the codification of international human rights law still in its relative infancy, the question must be explored: where else might abortion rights fit into its codes?

February 18, 2009

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Diana Whitten is a filmmaker currently documenting the work of Dr. Rebecca Gomperts and Women on Waves, entitled Vessel.


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