Founded in 2001 by Dr. Rebecca Gomperts, Women on Waves is a Dutch non-profit organization that utilizes a variety of innovative strategies and technologies to ensure women worldwide have accurate information about and access to safe medical abortion. For the past 15 years, Women on Waves has worked on many diverse, global projects, which include ship campaigns, drone campaigns, telemedicine, augmented reality, and scientific research.
Women on Waves is most recognized for its direct action method of sailing to countries where abortion is illegal in order to provide safe abortion access. In international waters, twelve miles out to sea, the laws that govern a ship are those of the country in which it is registered. Therefore, operating at sea on a Dutch ship, Women on Waves can legally administer the abortion pill to women from these other countries. Since 2001, Women on Waves has sailed to Ireland (2001), Poland (2003), Portugal (2004), Spain (2008) and Morocco (2012). These ship campaigns are the mechanism to create public awareness and gain attention in countries where advancements in access to reproductive health are sought. The ship campaigns are not intended to be a practical solution to a pervasive problem. While they can help a few women, their tangible power is largely symbolic: the strategy itself is harnessed to create political discussion and catalyze legal change.
Since 2008, Women on Waves has also initiated safe abortion hotlines and has trained women's rights organizations in South America, Africa, and Asia. These grassroots women's groups provide local women information about the most effective use of misoprostol to induce a safe abortion. Research has shown that the administration of misoprostol by women themselves in settings with restrictive abortion laws has led to decreased morbidity and mortality. The freedom of information guaranteed by Article 19 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights protects the sharing of information about misoprostol for safe medical abortion.
Women on Web, the sister organization of Women on Waves, was founded in 2006 as an international telemedicine abortion service to provide access to medical abortion for women in countries where this basic healthcare is severely restricted. The entire project was initiated as a response to emails from women worldwide with unwanted pregnancies and without safe options for treatment. Women who need access to safe medical abortion can fill out an online consultation at www.womenonweb.org that is then evaluated by a physician. If there are no contraindications, women receive medicines to complete an early abortion. Women are asked to make a voluntary donation to cover the costs of the service, but if this is not possible, help is always provided. This patient-centered approach to global telemedicine removes economic challenges as a barrier for treatment. Scientific research by Women on Web demonstrates that outcomes of services provided through telemedicine (provision of medicines, counseling and information through the internet) are comparable with results reported in studies on medical abortion in outpatient settings.
A multilingual Helpdesk assists the physicians of Women on Web. The organization has supported more than 45,000 woman obtaining access to safe medical abortions and currently the Helpdesk answers almost 100,000 emails each year in 15 different languages. Women on Web also offers an online platform called "I had an abortion" in which women can share their own stories. Thousands of women around the globe have written about their abortion experiences, which break a vicious cycle of stigma and shame, as well as offering support to other women seeking this service.
This year marks the tenth year anniversary of Women on Web, an organization that has paved the way for a specialized field of telemedicine for medical abortion. The globalized age of the Internet has also contributed to this changing landscape; many new sources now also offer the same service. However, the greatest challenge is to confirm that the players in this rapidly emerging market are providing high quality, reliable and safe healthcare for women.
In the past few years, high profile cases of self-induced termination have brought "Do It
Yourself" (DIY) abortion to the forefront in the battle for reproductive rights. This widespread criminalization of women's bodies by the state is both rampant and geographically dispersed, occurring in the United States, Chile, El Salvador and Northern Ireland. Offering a further nuanced tale of prosecution, El Salvador is notorious for its long-term imprisonment of women who have experienced natural miscarriages by interpreting this event as aggravated homicide. Most recently in Northern Ireland, a 21-year-old woman was charged with inciting her own medical abortion in 2014, through the use of misoprostol and mifepristone. Facing life in prison under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, pro-choice networks both in Ireland and abroad have rallied in solidarity and offered legal support to this young woman as her trial approaches.
While these women's stories are specific to their cultural context, they are nevertheless unified by systemic factors of both social and economic inequality. Women of low socio-economic status do not always have the resources to access safe abortion services. As a result, these are the same vulnerable women who are subsequently charged and unable to hire expert legal representation necessary to navigate the justice system. For example, women in Ireland who have a social support system and the financial reserve can make the well-known voyage to England for a safe abortion. But what about the fate of all of the women who cannot afford this cumbersome and costly journey to end an unwanted pregnancy?
The contemporary self-abortion cases demonstrate that even as the international community for safe medical abortion has made progress, the fight for women's basic bodily autonomy is one that must be waged vigilantly. While a harm-reduction model can certainly justify telemedicine for home abortion, Women on Waves and Women on Web advocate for a paradigmatic shift to an approach of self-empowerment and ultimate autonomy for women. Both organizations seek to normalize medical abortion as a procedure that is just one part of comprehensive reproductive healthcare services. Women on Waves and Women on Web will continue to strategically use the advances of new technology to guarantee women everywhere can exercise the fundamental human right of choice.
HuffPost UK is running a month-long project in March called All Women Everywhere, providing a platform to reflect the diverse mix of female experience and voices in Britain today. Through blogs, features and video, we'll be exploring the issues facing women specific to their age, ethnicity, social status, sexuality and gender identity. If you'd like to blog on our platform around these topics, email firstname.lastname@example.org with a summary of who you are and what you'd like to blog about