Women on Waves rocked the boat well before setting sail in 2001. Lead by physician Rebecca Gomperts, this women’s healthcare advocacy group aimed to provide abortion services in countries where the procedure is illegal. They built a seafaring abortion clinic registered in The Netherlands, anchored it 12 miles away from harbors in international waters, where they could operate under Dutch law, and attempted to safely bring women on board. Yet, media buzz resulted in strong resistance–such as military intervention as they approached Portugal, and pelts from fake blood and eggs in Poland. No surgical abortions were performed at sea, and only fifty women received abortions of any kind on the vessel. “But the boat created a lot of controversy, which has always been important to the campaign,” says Kinja Manders, project manager for Women on Waves. “Our goal has always been to stir public debate, and to send the message that abortion is not simply a public health issue–it’s a social justice issue.
The small team, a mix of healthcare specialists and activists, provided contraceptives, pregnancy testing, information about STDs, and prescribed the abortion pill (RU-486) aboard until 2008. While the sea voyages have ended, Women on Waves has exhibited the boat in international exhibitions, in homage to the organization’s roots in the arts: Early funding was provided by the Mondriaan Foundation, and Gomperts earned a degree in art before attending med school. “We’ve always been interested in the link between activism and art,” Manders says. “And in finding creative and conceptual solutions that are on the edge.” The organization now exists online and educates women on safe, self-induced abortions, a medically uncontroversial, but politically charged practice; how to obtain abortion pills; and where to seek accurate information and counseling before and after an abortion. The website receives two million hits a year.