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RU-486 Abortions at Home in Countries Where Abortion Is Illegal

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Susan E. Wills - published on 08/31/14

Dumb plan or dumbest plan?

Sunday’s New York Times Magazine section has a seven-thousand-five-hundred-word paean to Rebecca Gomperts, a Dutch doctor who has dedicated the past 15 years of her life to promoting and facilitating illegal RU-486 abortions wherever in the world abortion remains illegal or restricted.

Entitled “The Post-Clinic Abortion” (and online, the more modest “The Dawn of the Post-Clinic Abortion”), Emily Bazelon begins by chronicling Dr. Gomperts’ media-splashy but highly ineffectual early efforts with Women on Waves and its floating mobile abortion clinic.

Each step in the saga of Women on Waves confirms the truth of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s observation:

“ … violence does not live alone and is not capable of living alone: it is necessarily interwoven with falsehood. Between them lies the most intimate, the deepest of natural bonds. Violence finds its only refuge in falsehood.  … violence … cannot continue to exist without descending into a fog of lies, clothing them in sweet talk. … it demands from its subjects only an oath of allegiance to falsehood, only complicity in falsehood.”

To deliver on her promise of providing pills that kill and violently expel unborn children to women living in Ireland, Poland, Portugal, Spain and Morocco, Dr. Gomperts had to resort to multiple falsehoods. She had to build a mobile abortion clinic for the rented tugboat to comply with Dutch abortion law. To fund the building of the mobile clinic, she talked an artist friend into applying for a grant from the Dutch arts council for “a functional work of art” consisting of his design and construction of the mobile clinic. But having a container on the deck of the tugboat ran afoul of transport regulations, and they succeeded only by passing it off to authorities as a “functional work of art” named “A-portable.”

Gomperts also needed a license to perform abortions after 6.5 weeks’ pregnancy. She’d applied for one but had not received it when the time came for her widely publicized voyage to Dublin. She stated that some 200 Irish women were eager to board the tugboat, travel 12 miles offshore into international waters, take the pills and be delivered back to Dublin to wait for a “miscarriage.”

On arrival at a Dublin dock, Women on Waves was met by the press as well as protesters and, I suppose “eager women,” but there would be no abortion trips that day. Dutch authorities had notified the press that Gomperts did not have a license to provide abortions after 6.5 weeks and she was forced to backtrack, explaining that she wouldn’t be able to give out any abortion pills, but that this “is just the first of many trips we plan to make.” The London Telegraph reported on the fiasco with this headline: “Abortion Boat Admits Dublin Voyage was a Publicity Sham.” Another headline read: “Dutch activists renege on abortions promise.” The tugboat never returned to Ireland.

Two more years passed before Dr. Gomperts set sail for Poland. The 2-week voyage earned massive press coverage and may have resulted in exactly 10 RU-486 abortions (in international waters).

Authorities in Portugal and Morocco were able to prevent the tugboat from entering port. The voyage to Spain may have resulted in 7 or more abortions.

While there was little to show for the massive amounts of money thrown into these publicity ventures, Dr. Gomperts describes the whole Women on Waves campaign as a great success, crediting it with igniting movements for legal abortion in Portugal, Spain and Poland. An enduring legacy of sorts.

In 2006, Dr. Gomperts abandoned abortion advocacy by tugboat, giving up Women on Waves in favor of Women on Web, “a ‘telemedicine support service’ for women around the world who are seeking medical abortions.” The service provides women with instructions on where to make an online purchase of the RU-486 and misoprostol drug combination, and how to use it. They “screen” (via a short questionnaire) for ectopic pregnancy, gestational age (guesswork), and other possible contraindications. They tell women to seek medical attention if they believe something has gone wrong, because they (obviously) can’t judge from a distance if, for example, hemorrhaging is potentially fatal or if the woman may die of sepsis.

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