This article was originally posted in Portuguese at AzMina Magazine.
Almost thirty years ago, Dutch doctor and artist Rebecca Gomperts worked for Greenpeace on board of their Rainbow Warrior III ship. When in South America, most of Rebecca’s time was spent helping women who were victim 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 organization, she thought: “why not create a Greenpeace for sexual and reproductive health?”
When in international waters, ships are ruled by the laws of their country of origin. Since abortion is legal in the Netherlands, any woman can have the procedure done inside a Dutch ship, as long as it is in the middle of the ocean. With the help from the Van Lishout design atelier, Gomperts created a portable gynecological unit that could easily be installed in rented ships. In 1999, Women on Waves (WoW) was born.
Ireland was the organization’s first destination, in 2001. After that, came 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 by appearing in the media. The strategy worked, as abortion was legalized in Portugal soon after WoW’s visit, in 2007. Spain did the same in 2010.
Poland still prohibits it, but Rebecca doesn’t give up. This year, her organization has sent a drone to throw Misoprostrol 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 an abortion in other EU members.
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 Misoprostrol pills via post and teaches women how to proceed. Anyone with an unwanted pregnancy can contact WoW’s helpdesk, 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 general population about how abortion pills work, as a lot of misinformation exists in countries where abortion isn’t legal. On the organization’s website, you will learn about dosage, how the medicine acts in the body, what to expect, possible side effects and the like. Finally, so that pregnant women know that they are not alone, the website features a section where women from all over the world share their abortion stories.
Unfortunately, WoW is no longer able to send Misoprostrol pills to Brazil, because all packages are confiscated at customs. The NGO thus advises Brazilian women to have the pills sent to a post box in another South American country (except Argentina and Uruguay) and then travel there to pick them up.
AzMina magazine talked to Letícia, Mariana and Renata, the three Brazilians that work 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 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, even though I wasn’t rich, I could still have a safe abortion. In the end, it was just a false alarm, but I became a fan of the organization anyway. Years later, as a graduated lawyer and master student in human rights, I got to work for them! I have been working 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 use their services in the end, but I became a fan of the organization and started following their work. I have been working for WoW since March, 2015. I have a degree in Sociology and Law.
Renata: I am a visual artist and I met Rebecca at Rietveld, an art school in Amsterdam, where I live. We were on the same class. I follow Women on Waves since its very beginning. 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 find their autonomy. We are not here to tell them what to do, but to inform them and support them in making their own decisions. It makes me proud to see how much those women 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, but rather to support them. 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 of criminalizing policies that kill millions of women around the world. The best thing about the job is knowing that, despite of all limitations, we have built a space where women can be heard.
Renata: I am so proud and happy to see how much we can mean to so many desperate women who reach out for 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 that can afford traveling abroad to get the procedure done to women that have absolutely no economic means. We get a lot of messages from women that were raped but are having difficulty getting an abortion, even though Brazilian law says they can in this case. We also receive a lot of e-mails from women who were abandoned by their partners once they found out about the pregnancy.
There are also cases of mothers who don’t want any more children, students that don’t want to abandon their studies, women that consider themselves too old or too young to become mothers… Anyway, our e-mails confirm what every 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 women 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. Some of them only want to reveal the basics while others need to let it all out, they feel alone and desperate and they 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 so hard and full of fear, anguish and stigma, when it could be so simple: all it takes are 12 pills of Misoprostrol.
I read that, years ago, when WoW still managed to send packages to Brazil, that 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 in comparison with the total amount of women that have used our mailing service. Fortunately, none of them was convicted. But WoW has a team of Brazilian lawyers available to represent us in such situations.
Since customs confiscates the pills, WoW suggests Brazilian women to travel to a neighboring country, which is not possible for poor women. And they are precisely the ones that suffer the most with the prohibition…
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 in the country or elsewhere. This makes us mad and also shows the level of hypocrisy regarding this theme in Brazil. Some fancy abortion clinics, although illegal, remain open and everyone knows about them. Misoprostrol, on the other hand, has been severely restricted, thus 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 also a class and race issue. As we said earlier, all kinds of women have illegal abortions in Brazil, but the ones who die have a clear address, color and income profile.
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 a legal abortion.
Letícia: this bill goes against the right to information guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Brazilian state has not only ratified this convention, but also included the right to information in its constitution. It goes against the Cairo and Beijing Conferences too. Therefore, it is not only inconstitutional, but also sets Brazil backwards in the international human rights scenario.
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 oportunistic 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. But 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 inconstitutional. It is simply unacceptable that the church has gotten so much power within the Congress. Politics and religion should not mix, for this often results in discrimination. And we know how that usually ends: the poorest and more vulnerable groups are the ones who pay the price.
*Their last names were not revealed due to WoW’s secrecy policy.