Mon, Nov 19, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Abortion doctor believes in direct action

Dutch physician Rebecca Gomperts has caused a huge controversy by providing abortions for women living in countries where the procedure is illegal -- by making use of a legal loophole and working on a ship in international waters

By Julie Ferry  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Rebecca Gomperts, abortion doctor and activist, arrives straight from London-Heathrow airport, dressed in a smart suit, a big smile lighting up her girlish face. She is stopping off briefly en route to another engagement -- a special screening of the film Vera Drake. She isn't keen.

"I've seen it lots of times," she sighed, adding mischievously, "I'm going to try to get out of it."

The event has been organized to tie in with the 40th anniversary of the UK's 1967 Abortion Act, which is also the reason Gomperts, 41, is in Britain.

She is the founder of Women on Waves (WoW), a radical Dutch organization that sails an "abortion ship" to countries where the procedure is illegal, before taking women out to the safety of international waters to provide terminations.

Gomperts' reluctance to see the Mike Leigh film was not because she was uninterested in the subject matter then. Her passion is evident, but after eight years of being involved in the fray over the abortion debate, she is keen to focus solely on her next voyage.

Her goal, she said firmly, is to "get out of Europe."

"So far we have sailed to Ireland, Poland and Portugal, all when abortion was illegal, with varying degrees of success, but we are looking to visit either South America or Africa next summer," she said. "Wherever we go there is a lot of press attention and opposition from anti-abortion groups but it is in developing countries that women really suffer because of unsafe and illegal abortions. That is why it is important for us to go there and raise awareness, however difficult it may be."

An article published in the Lancet medical journal earlier this year backs up her view that the burden of unsafe abortion is borne disproportionately by the poor, the disadvantaged and the young. There are an estimated 210 million pregnancies worldwide each year, of which one in five ends in an abortion. An estimated 20 million unsafe abortions are carried out each year, 97 percent of them in developing countries.

The International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) says complications from unsafe abortions account for 70,000 deaths annually, as well as countless injuries.

"It's such a waste of life," Gomperts said. "As a doctor, I look at the abortion issue from a health perspective and the fact is that an early abortion is safer than giving birth. That is not meant to promote abortion because if women want to have children it is a risk they are naturally willing to take. However, if they don't want them they should never be forced to take that risk."

It was a stint as resident doctor aboard Greenpeace's Rainbow Warrior II boat that inspired Gomperts to set up WoW. She was shocked by the number of women who were either suffering from botched back street abortions, or struggling to cope with several mouths to feed, in countries where the procedure is illegal or severely restricted. She became determined to find a way to help them.

"I remember meeting an 18-year-old girl in South America who was desperately trying to take care of her three younger brothers and sisters. She had recently lost her mother because of a backstreet abortion. Her mother had been pregnant for a fifth time and couldn't support another child so she had gone down the illegal route. I thought, how is it possible that a whole family has lost their mother just because she couldn't get a safe and legal abortion?" Gomperts said.

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