This article was originally posted in Portuguese at AzMina Magazine.
The Dutch doctor and artist Rebecca Gomperts used to work for Greenpeace on board of their Rainbow Warrior III ship. Thirty years ago, when visiting South America, most of Rebecca’s time was spent helping women who were victims of illegal, unsafe abortions. Those women had such an impact on the young doctor that, months after coming back to the Netherlands, she couldn’t get them out of her head. Inspired by her former employer, she thought: “why not create the Greenpeace of sexual and reproductive health?”.
Ships are ruled by the laws of their country of origin when in international waters. Since abortion is legal in the Netherlands, any woman can have the procedure done inside a Dutch ship. With the help from the Van Lieshout design atelier, Gomperts created a portable gynecological unit that could easily be installed in rental ships. Women on Waves (WoW) was born in 1999.
Ireland was the organization’s first destination, in 2001, followed by Poland, Portugal, and Spain. In Portugal, WoW couldn’t even approach the port as a military fleet already waited for them. But that didn’t matter: their biggest goal was to raise public awareness on the issue. And that they did, as abortion became legal in Portugal soon after WoW’s visit, in 2007. Spain did the same in 2010.
Poland still prohibits it, but Gomperts doesn’t give up. This year, her organization has sent a drone to throw Misoprostol pills at the border with Germany. Once again, the act was just symbolic, a marketing stunt more than anything. Since Poland is part of the European Union, Polish women are able to get abortions in other EU member states.
Nowadays, Internet is the biggest stage for Gomperts’ activism, with the project Women on Web, whose focus is to help women around the world to have safe abortions at home. The NGO sends Misoprostol pills by mail and teaches women how to proceed. Anyone with an unwanted pregnancy can contact WoW’s helpdesk, which is available in several languages, including Brazilian Portuguese. It doesn’t matter if you want the pills or not. WoW helps women even when all they need is someone to listen.
WoW also aims to inform the public about how abortion pills work, as a lot of misinformation exists in countries where abortion isn’t legal. On the organization’s website, visitors learn about how the medicine acts in the body, the appropriate dosage, what to expect, possible side effects and more. Finally, the website features a section where women from all over the world share their abortion stories, so that those considering abortion know they are not alone.
Unfortunately, WoW is no longer able to send Misoprostol pills to Brazil because all packages are confiscated at customs. The NGO now advises Brazilian women to have the pills sent to a post box in another South American country (except Argentina and Uruguay) and then go there to pick them up.
AzMina magazine talked to Letícia, Mariana and Renata, the three Brazilians working for WoW’s helpdesk. They receive an average of 800 e-mails a month. In case bill 5069 (recently approved by a commission within the Brazilian Congress) is sanctioned, these three women can go to jail. The bill proposes imprisonment for anyone who “induces, influences or helps” a woman to have an abortion. As the bill’s text does not specify what exactly constitutes “inducing, influencing or helping”, even the supply of medical and scientific information about abortions can be punished. Below, the three women comment on the bill and tell us a little bit about their daily work.
Tell me a little about yourselves and how you got to work for WoW.
Letícia: Several years ago, I thought I was pregnant. I had just started college. I was desperate, but WoW’s website showed me that I could still have a safe abortion even though I was not rich. It was just a false alarm in the end, but I became a fan of the organization anyway. Years later, as a lawyer and master student in human rights, I got to work for them! I have been working at WoW for a year and a half and I can’t believe how lucky I am to work with Rebecca Gomperts and her amazing team.
Mariana: I found WoW when I got pregnant, years ago. Just like Letícia, I also didn’t use their services in the end, but I became a fan of the organization and started following its work. I have I have a degree in Sociology and Law and have been working for WoW since March 2015.
Renata: I am a visual artist and I met Rebecca at Rietveld, an art school in Amsterdam, where I live. I follow Women on Waves since its inception. I was a volunteer on the abortion ship’s first trip to Ireland! The shift from volunteer to employee happened about 5 years ago and I joined the help desk about 18 months ago.
What do you like the most about this job?
Letícia: It is extremely empowering to help women to find their autonomy. We are not here to tell them what to do but rather to inform them and support them in making their own decisions. It makes me proud to see how much they trust our work. Sometimes, we even get messages from women wanting to get pregnant and asking for tips! I love that, I love that they understand that we are not here to encourage them to have an abortion. It is an intense and beautiful cycle of solidarity, even though we hear sad stories every day and we know that, no matter how much we work, we will never be able to reach all women who need us.
Mariana: The work is absolutely gratifying. Most e-mails are about providing women with information rather than actually sending them the pills and it’s nice to see how important that is in their process of deciding what to do. We are just small drops of water in the ocean, but it is so good to know that we can promote access to information despite criminalizing policies that kill millions of women around the world.
Renata: I am so proud and happy to see how much we can mean to so many desperate women who reach out to us because they don’t have any other means to receive safe help. This is a human right that has been taken away from them by hypocrite and moralist governments.
Can you trace a profile of the average Brazilian woman that gets in touch with WoW?
Renata: no, we can’t. All kinds of women look for us: from women who can afford traveling abroad to have the procedure done to women that have absolutely no economic means. We get a lot of messages from women who were raped but are having trouble getting an abortion, even though Brazilian law allows them to have one in this case. We also receive many e-mails from women who were abandoned by their partners once they found out about the pregnancy.
There are cases of mothers who don’t want any more children, students who don’t want to abandon their studies, women who consider themselves too old or too young to become mothers… Anyway, our e-mails confirm what every academic research says: all women, from all social classes, all ages, and all religions get illegal abortions in Brazil.
Usually, for how long do you exchange e-mails? Do you keep talking to them even after they manage to get an abortion or if they end up having the baby?
Mariana: it’s up to the women to decide how long to stay in touch. Some of them want to keep it superficial while others need to let it all out, they feel lonely and desperate and need someone to listen to them. We are here for all of them and we respect their decision to open up with us, whether it’s a lot or just a little. In Brazil, many women reach their goal of having a safe abortion with pills at home. The problem is that the law makes the path towards this goal very difficult and filled with fear, anguisj, and stigma when all it takes are 12 pills of Misoprostol.
I remember that, years ago, when WoW still managed to send packages to Brazil, some women were prosecuted for ordering them. How was that?
Letícia: that was many years ago. WoW was not prosecuted, the women were. But they were few considering the total amount of women that have used our mailing service. Fortunately, none of them was convicted. WoW has a team of Brazilian lawyers available to represent us in such situations.
WoW suggests Brazilian women travel to a neighboring country to get the pills, which is not possible for poor women — precisely the ones who suffer the most…
Renata: poor women are the biggest victims of these laws, for middle class and rich women in Brazil can afford to have safe illegal abortions locally or elsewhere. This enerves us and also shows the level of hypocrisy regarding this theme in Brazil. Fancy abortion clinics remain open even though they’re illegal and everybody knows about them. Misoprostol, on the other hand, has been severely restricted, keeping women with a lower income from also having access to safe abortions. For us, it is clear that abortion is not just a gender issue in Brazil. It is a class and race issue as well. As we said earlier, all kinds of women have illegal abortions in Brazil, but the ones who die have a certain address, skin tone, and income.
How did you receive the news about the 5069 bill? Besides criminalizing people who provide information about abortion, it demands rape victims to prove they have been raped in order to have access to legal abortions.
Letícia: this bill goes against the right to information guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Brazilian state has ratified this convention and included the right to information in its constitution. It goes against the Cairo and Beijing Conferences too. Therefore, it is not only unconstitutional but also sets Brazil backward in the international human rights landscape.
Mariana: I received it the way I receive all the bills proposed by Eduardo Cunha (leader of the Brazilian Congress): I am disgusted by how he wants to criminalize more and more people. This is an opportunistic and violent proposal, for it targets the most vulnerable women in our population, those who barely have access to information. Many public hospitals already apply what Cunha proposes, demanding rape victims to prove that they have been raped. Luckily, most hospitals follow the protocol, not demanding women to go through humiliating procedures and offering them psychological help as well.
Renata: Absurd, ridiculous, criminal… Not to mention totally unconstitutional. It is simply unacceptable that the church has gotten so much power over Congress. Politics and religion should not mix, as this often results in discrimination. We know how that usually ends: the poorest and more vulnerable groups are the ones who pay the highest price.
*Their last names were not revealed due to WoW’s secrecy policy.