Interview with Dr. Rebecca Gomperts, Founder of Women on Waves and Women on Web
Working in Guinea as a young doctor, Dr. Rebecca Gomperts confronted with the reality of unsafe abortions and envisioned to do something about it. She founded Women on Waves in 1999 and sailed to countries where abortion is restricted to offer safe offshore abortions in international waters. In 2005, she established Women on Web, which is known to be the first telemedicine abortion service working worldwide. Celebrating Women on Web’s fifteen years of service this year, we sat down to ask her about her work at Women on Web, advice for the younger generation on organizing for reproductive justice.
Interview by Geena and Hazal
You have been working on abortion rights for almost twenty years. Could you please tell us a bit about your journey and how it all came about?
I think I can take the start of my journey from when the time when I was confronted with the reality of unsafe abortion, and that was when I was working in Africa. Many women came into the hospital with severe bleeding and miscarriages, and complications that sometimes led to death. Abortion was illegal there, and I knew it, but I was not necessarily confronted with the reality of it. At some point, the doctor that I was working with was going to do an abortion, he asked me to help him and I did. That was the first abortion that I participated in. Soon after, I realized that I was pregnant and it was an unwanted pregnancy. I flew home to the Netherlands to have an abortion at a clinic. I think this was the first time for me that abortion became an issue, but I was still missing a context of civil and human rights. I was just a doctor being trained, and I didn’t have much political awareness on health inequality, and human rights violations. My political awareness grew when I started working for Greenpeace. I worked in Mexico and at that time abortion was a big taboo there. Intrigued, I went to hospitals to talk about the issue. I had the idea of initiating Women on Waves and the abortion ship already. I was also working on a book at that time, and when the book was published, journalists were asking me about my next project. When I shared my idea for Women on Waves, it totally blew up in the Netherlands. I was receiving many phone calls and many people were interested, and it fell on me a bit, because at that time, it was just an idea. There wasn’t any organization, nothing. Perhaps, that also helped people understand what was missing and it attracted funders-which is something you need.
So, how did it go with Women on Waves afterwards?
When we did the first abortion ship campaign in Ireland in 2001, of course, everything went wrong (She laughs!). Because they said that we needed a license to perform abortions and we didn’t have that. However, we still made the journey and Women on Waves made news worldwide, abortion was front page news everywhere! We had a group of lobbyists in the Netherlands, who were actually part of the group and generation who fought for legalization of abortion here. They lobbied for us and the Minister of Health of that time, she allowed Women on Waves to perform early abortions on the ship. She was about to retire at that time and this was her last discussion in the parliament. Then, we received a letter from her and it was thanks to this, we were able to continue doing the campaign in Poland, and later on in Portugal, Spain, Morocco, so on and so forth. So, there have been people stepping up at moments when they could and they have been extremely brave.
Then in 2005, you founded Women on Web, which is known to be the first telemedicine abortion service. How did it happen and what was the biggest challenge for you at that time?
At that time, the idea of telemedicine abortion was still marginal. So, the moment we started Women on Web, we knew that we had to publish scientific research on what we were doing. Only two years after we started operating, we published our first scientific article. This triggered response in several countries, for example, in 2009, Ireland started seizing packages at the customs and investigating women who received abortion pills. They also started a legal investigation and a court case against me, because the pills were sent with my prescription. The court case was held in Austria and I was also called to the Ethical Committee of the Doctors. I remember that at the court, there were four men sitting in front of me and my lawyer -I had an amazing lawyer there!- claimed that it's a biased court, consisting of only men. Then, we never heard anything back from the Ethical Committee. The court case was not only about me, but it was also about the future of the organization and also about what is possible. Following this, we made more publications, proved that telemedicine abortion is safe and effective, which allowed more people to support our work or to join us, and it also paved the way for other services and websites to operate.
Now that it’s been 15 years since Women on Web was founded, how do you see the work of Women on Web and its impact?
Looking back the past 15 years, the most impact Women on Web made was making telemedicine mainstream. We generated a lot of the research that supported the normalization: the “no-touch abortion” services. We also encouraged other organizations to do similar work. I also believe that our research was extremely fundamental in the legal changes that happened in Ireland and Northern Ireland. Another thing that changed significantly last fifteen years is that medical abortion has become widely available. We see it in the decline of maternal mortality rate. When I started working, the maternal mortality rate was about 80,000 a year. Now it’s 22,500. And that is because of the accessibility of medical abortion. With globalization, it has became much easier to access abortion pills and get information although it still posies certain challenges. And the role the internet played in the last 15 years, it’s huge!
Can you tell us about your team at Women on Web? Who’s on it and what do they do?
I think we have an interesting mix of people in our team. I think that helpdesk, which answers women’s help requests daily, is the core of the organization. Their commitment, vision and participation, as well as their knowledge in their countries and language, makes our work possible. At the moment, we have 17 languages in helpdesk. We also have artists, activists, and academics who work with us, who are part of our staff or Board members. These are the people whose shoulders we stand on. We stand on the work of these people.
You provide telemedicine abortion in countries with restrictive settings. How do you process solidarity and opposition to your activism in your life?
When you work on campaigns with grassroots organisations, you experience an incredible and intense solidarity for a certain period of time. This gives an enormous feeling of belonging that you are part of a big movement. It also gives a realization that you need a cause and an idea to bring people together, this is extremely important! The opposition, to be honest, it washes off very easily. I receive some hate emails and letters, but it does not bother me. I say to myself, “It’s about them, it’s not about me.”
How would you describe your activism?
I think there are two ways of being an activist; one is being reactive and the other is being proactive. The latter means that you design your own work and your own campaign. One of the problems that we have in the abortion movement now is that because of the backlash we have been forced into a very reactive position. For example, with the censorship of our website in certain countries, we are forced to fight against it. And we have to fight against it, we don’t have any other option. I think ideally activism should combine knowledge -knowledge is power,really!-, public action and proactive projects. When you have these three elements together, then you have a form of activism that is very empowering.
What motivates you to do your work? Did you experience moments where you lost that motivation?
I’ve always had those moments. And especially when you work so hard, it’s sometimes hard to keep that motivation. You know what I do when I have that? I start reading thank you emails people send to Women on Web. That simple. For me, that’s how I get back the feeling that my work is meaningful, it’s when you read the stories of women who are saying how we changed their lives. That’s what’s most beautiful about our work; that we can fundamentally change people’s lives.
What is the next step for Women on Web and for you?
The next step for Women on Web is re-structuring the organization and streamlining the operation side. We are making the organization more resilient. This is a huge transition and it’s a lot of work. In an organization, you need different kinds of people. I think it’s important to make space for younger people. There are many things I need to educate myself on. It’s important that the organization has space for younger people to thrive in and to take leadership.
Could you give some advice for the younger generation who wants to be involved in the reproductive justice movement?
Main challenge will be that the reproductive justice issue won’t be on anyone’s main agenda. I think reproductive justice issues are discussed only when other things have already been taken care of. It’s often sidelined and it’s used as a tool for negotiation. It’s also because even those who support abortion, they don’t know if they are sure about it. And the narratives around the experience of going through an abortion is often the ones that emphasize emotional or physical toll it takes and how it shapes their entire life afterwards. This makes it difficult to normalize talking about abortion or experiences of abortion. It means the discussion is often “yes to abortion, but...”
No, we should say yes without exceptions. Access to abortion is a fundamental human right.