Women on Web, Women on Waves and the abortion referendum in Ireland

Women on Waves first abortion ship campaign took place in Ireland in 2001. It was the first time a proactive abortion rights campaign took place in Ireland. Within a few days, 300 women had contacted the ship's hotline. The extent of demand surprised everyone, including the Irish partner organisations, who assumed that Irish women could easily travel to the UK. The calls came from 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 pay for childcare during their journey to England, and political refugees who did not have the papers to travel. While the ship was in the harbour, different workshops took place on board. At the end of the medical and legal workshops the participants decided to set up the organisations Doctors for Choice and Lawyers for Choice.

In 2006, Women on Web started helping women in Ireland getting access to safe abortions via telemedicine. The first scientific publication about Women on Web in the BJOG, received a lot of media attention also in Ireland.  In 2009, the Irish customs started confiscating all the packages and women had to travel to Northern Ireland to get their packages with abortion pills. The Irish government requested the prosecution of Dr. Gomperts, who provided the abortion pill prescriptions for Women on Web and she won the court case in 2012.

When Savita Halappanavar died on 28 October 2012, after she was refused medical care for her miscarriage in the university hospital of Galway, there was a lot of media attention for the consequences of illegal abortion in Ireland. The abortion rights movement organized a lot of activities and invited Women on Web to participate. As part of the campaign for legalization and access to safe abortion, activists started a sticker campaign in Dublin to promote Women on Web in May 2013. The sticker campaign was reported by various media, including the Guardian.

In January and February, 2013, the Irish Examiner wrote for the first time about how an Irish woman Claire shared she ordered abortion pills online  and the Independent published similar testimonies of two students from Dublin.

In July 30, 2013  the Irish government adopted a new abortion law that allowed abortions under very limited circumstances.

In 2014, Irish Parliamentarian Ruth Coppinger and the grassroots organisation ROSA approached  Women on Web and Women on Waves to collaborate and since we have worked closely together. We collaborated in several high impact campaigns (abortion train in 2014abortion bus 2015 and 2017 and the abortion drone 2016).  

In support of a law proposal by Ruth to legalize abortion in October 2016, the University of Texas published scientific research about the number and experience of women who used the Women on Web service. Another study about the safety of the use of medical abortion in Ireland was published in May 2017.   

In September of 2017 the media reports that most Fina Gealministers still believed only a very restrictive abortion law would pass  and none of the 4 big parties supported legalizing abortion till 12 weeks.  

Abigail Aiken was invited to testify before the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment in November 2017.  She presented the research about the safety, effectiveness, and acceptability of medication abortion through Women on Web in Ireland, as well as the new research on Irish women's decision-making when they need to obtain abortion services, and their experiences both with traveling abroad and availing of online telemedicine services at home.

The testimony about the use of abortion pills in Ireland swayed the opinion of all the parliamentarians, even the conservatives. And on December 14 th, 2017 the Oireachtas committee called for abortion to be legal for all women up to 12 weeks.

As Fine Gael minister Regina Doherty stated in December 2017: “I think the state has finally really recognized that we have a problem  with women buying illegal abortion pills online and we realize we need to mind those women….”

Many Ministers followed suit and came out in support of the proposed law change.

The referendum took place on May 25, 2018 and 66% of the voters voted YES. It was the largest turn out for a referendum ever.

The role of Women on Web and the published research about the women using the online abortion service has been acknowledged in the media.

Between April 2006, when Women on Web started its telemedical abortion service and January 2019 when abortion was legalised in Ireland, Women on Web has supported more than 10.000 women from Ireland and Northern Ireland to get access to safe abortion pills.