The secret work these women do is illegal on land. So they do it on a ship.

The Women on Waves ship.

The women who run this ship call it the “Sea of Change”.

Protesters call it the “Ship of Death”.

Women on Waves is a Dutch organisation founded in 1999, which provides abortion services – on board a ship – to women living in countries with restrictive abortion laws.

WoW has docked in countries all over the globe, from Ireland to Morocco. Once the ship has been docked, women board the boat – and then the ship sails back into international waters.

The reason? Women on Waves operates using a loophole in international law, which says that when a vessel is travelling the seas, the laws of the home country apply. In the Netherlands, abortion is legal up to six-and-a-half weeks into the pregnancy. The abortion that the women undergo on board is a medical abortion, brought on by the drugs misoprostol and mifepristone.

The women who run and staff the ship are passionate about helping women without access to adequate reproductive health services — and committed to letting them control their own bodies. The ship carries RU486, as well as birth control pills and condoms.

Dr Rebecca Gomperts, who founded the organisation, is a Dutch physician and activist. In a recent interview with The Daily Beast, she explained why she thinks it’s so important to provide women with safe access to abortion services.

“Control of people’s lives is the domain of religion—whether it’s moral control, ethical control, or social control… The reality is that whatever religion people are in, they still have abortions.”

Before Gomperts started the project, she worked in a hospital in Africa. During her time there, she says that “there were constantly women coming in, on the verge of shock, infected and bleeding because of botched abortions.”


“What essentially motivates me is the right to autonomy and self-determination,” Gompert continues. “It’s a fundamental human right.”

The ship has met protesters wherever they go. On one occasion, docking in Poland, red paint was thrown at the ship and eggs were thrown at the staff. Protesters also threatened to photograph women boarding the vessel. Now, some women who visit Women on Waves during their trips around the globe decide to do so in disguise.

Dr Rebecca Gomperts, founder and director of Women on Waves.

Gomperts says, “There’s constant intimidation to try to stop our work from happening.”

But the work that protesters are trying to stop is important.

Nearly 21.6 million women experience an unsafe abortion every year. And 47,000 women die from complications during these unsafe abortions. To give these numbers context: every eight minutes, somewhere in the world, a woman dies of an illegal and unsafe abortion.

By providing access to safe and legal abortions, Women on Waves is trying to save lives. Many of the women procuring unsafe abortions are also from developing nations. They may not have the ability to provide for a child. They may be living in less-than-ideal or downright dangerous situations.

Women on Waves is not able to meet all of these women, obviously. In fact, they meet very few. But they are doing what they can, and drawing attention to the injustices women face around the world — where women lack basic healthcare and reproductive services — while they are at it.

They are saving one woman’s life at a time. And just as importantly, fighting to give women control over their lives.

To learn more, visit the Women on Waves website.

Do you think the Women on Waves organisation is providing a necessary service? Or do you think these groups should respect the laws of the countries they visit?