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Women on Waves: Navigating National and International Laws and Values


“My fiancé was a virgin, raped and impregnated. She lives in a country with no legal abortions. Family and community believe that if she escaped alive, she didn’t fight hard enough, and she is branded as a slut. I have hard enough time convincing her not to commit suicide, and she is terrified she might have to bear this child of rape. Through your site I was able to order Arthotec … I read your site to her over the phone and she now believes she’s not the only one, and that there is hope.”      (Email received by Women on Waves).

Each year, Women on Waves (WoW) receives over 4,000 messages from all over the world with harrowing stories such as this one from the Philippines. Founded in 1999 by Rebecca Gomperts, WoW is a Dutch non-profit organization with the mission “to prevent unwanted pregnancy and unsafe abortions throughout the world.” Equipped with mobile medical clinics, rented ships sail to disseminate information and contraceptives and facilitate counseling, workshops, training and abortions. WoW vessels traveled to Ireland in 2001, to Poland in 2003 and finally to Portugal in 2004. WoW’s mission, practices and voyages have stirred debate and raised controversy around the world. Upon which legal grounds and under what system of values does WoW justify its goals and actions? What opposition and barriers does WoW confront? WoW navigates not only law on the national, maritime and international levels but also engages age-old debates on the universality of human rights. That at least 20 million of the 46 million abortion procedures performed globally each year are illegal and unsafe points to not just the controversy but also the importance of WoW.

Women on Waves Navigates National and International Law

Women on Waves operates under a complex legal interplay of Dutch law, the national law of the host country, international sea law and international human rights law. Unsurprisingly, the arrival of WoW vessels has been very contentious, inciting political debate and court cases in Ireland, Poland, Portugal, the Netherlands and the European Union. 

Under the Dutch flag, with a permit from the Ministry of Health, a Women on Waves vessel transports the mobile medical clinic in international waters (the “high seas”). According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), international waters begin twelve nautical miles from shore, such that off the coast of the receiving country, Dutch abortion law is applicable. After a court battle, WoW obtained a permit to perform abortions up to twelve weeks of pregnancy with modern communication technologies at hand in case of complications. However, the government’s recent permit renewal allows WoW to carry out the procedure until only six and a half weeks after conception. When Gomperts, casually dressed in jeans and converse shoes, slipped into her office chair on a dreary Monday afternoon in June 2007, she characterized this backslide as indicative of Dutch political antipathy toward WoW. For Gomperts, the fierce opposition from Christian parties is just one more example that “abortion is always about politics and politics is always about power.” 

Regardless, because Women on Waves sails under the Dutch flag, it must comply with Dutch law. When docking in the harbor of another country or sailing through its territorial waters, it must also follow the national laws of the receiving country. In compliance with local legislation, the WoW crew provides reproductive health services, gives public tours and speaks to the press. With the help of local volunteers, they board women in need of counseling and abortion services.

Women on Waves actions are also grounded in international human rights law. The Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) forms the basis for abortion as a human right. Article 1 states “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” Thus, UDHR protects human rights beginning not with conception but rather birth. Simultaneously, though, the right to life, liberty and security of person can be contradictory and paradoxical in interpretation. In the context of abortion, the “right to life” could be interpreted as the fetal right to life while “liberty” offers a possible argument for individual autonomy in decision-making. The fetus’ right to life is similarly rejected in the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Similarly, neither the UN Convention for the Rights of the Child nor the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms recognizes the right to life until birth. 

Other treaties expand upon these rights. According to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), women have the right to “decide freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of their children.” This presumes access to the education and the means to exercise one’s reproductive rights such as contraception or abortion. The Human Rights Committee, which interprets and monitors state parties’ compliance with the ICCPR, has emphasized the need to protect the lives of women who seek illegal and unsafe abortions. 

WoW repeatedly manages to find loopholes in the Dutch law, the national law of the host country, international sea law and international human rights law in order to promote its message. Marjan Sax, founder of Mama Cash, a foundation that provided seed money for WoW’s first legal research, remembered that “the first reaction of every lawyer was, that’s impossible.” But Gomperts works practically, Sax explained. “If there’s a problem, she asks, how can we find legal loopholes to solve it? Lawyers are not used to that way of thinking, but Rebecca was born with it.” WoW attests to her continued success. 

Human Rights and Moral Relativism

Besides navigating international law, the work of Women on Waves highlights a debate central to the concept of human rights: moral and cultural relativism. Offering abortions to women in countries where they are illegal implicitly condones a belief in a universal right to abortion. While feminists defend WoW actions because they draw upon support of some women in the receiving countries, representatives of governments, religious sects and pro-life organizations attack WoW as unwarranted, if not neo-imperialist and murderous. In response, Gomperts and her allies often have to defend Women on Waves, first as justified and second as respectful of receiving countries. 

Dr. Swariti Saharso, professor of cultural studies at the Free University in Amsterdam, explains common sentiments behind many imperialist charges: “When a group that undermines a very restrictive policy on abortion comes, the government will play a neocolonial card. It will play on sentiment known to exist in society: we don’t like this paternalism from people outside our countries that they are going to tell us how we have to act, we don’t like that they have to offer services as if we ourselves are not capable of dealing with the problem.” 

Indeed, opponents argue the Dutch abortion ship infringes upon the receiving nation’s culture. Of course, sometimes the border between culture and religion is blurry. Poland is a fiercely Catholic country and though the strident anti-abortion stance of the Roman Catholic Church dates back only to 1869 it strongly impacts the national cultural identity. For example, the Polish editor of Practical Medicine-Obstetrics and Gynaecology refused to print the World Health Organization’s manual on safe abortion practices, arguing that abortion is always unsafe because it kills the unborn. The Archbishop Tadeusz Goclowski characterized the WoW crew’s objective as “killing Poles.” Bert Dorenbos, director of the Dutch pro-life organization, Cry for Life, articulated similar sentiments in a June 2007 telephone interview. Dorenbos criticized WoW for what he saw as their broad denunciation of Christianity. “Going to all those Catholic places to ridicule the Catholic approach to life,” he huffed. “From a religious point of view, what they really do is to denounce the faith of the people.” 

Nonetheless, Dorenbos believes that abortion is “not a religious issue.” He harked back to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, highlighting how all people, irrespective of religion, came together to affirm that “everybody has a right to have his or her life protected.” Speaking about organizations like Women on Waves, Dorenbos stated that “Western countries try to impose on the developing world their approach to life and poverty and development through the solution of abortion. When we go to the United Nations conference and talk to people from the developing world, which we do, you see that they are struggling very much with this Western approach to life because usually children are their old age insurance. I’m very angry about the Western world trying to impose death on unborn babies.” Dorenbos’ abhorrence of WoW’s alleged exportation of values is shared by many. American Conservative has defended pro-lifer protesters who pummelled the vessel Langenort with red paint and eggs: in light of the boat’s “express purpose of subverting the country’s laws,” their “righteous indignation” recognized the voyage as what it was, an “invasion.” The article calls WoW “the latest form of cultural imperialism—in short, exporting a culture of death.” Similarly, in an interview with the London Guardian, Dorenbos forcefully concluded, “In the past, the Dutch have been missionaries for good, but now we are missionaries for evil.” 

To Marjan Sax, the fiery feminist founder of Mama Cash, an organization that funds incipient women’s initiatives, these accusations of cultural imperialism are laughable. Sax finds neocolonial charges to be an “embarrassment. Maybe Holland can send out a ship with prostitution, euthanasia, soft drugs, abortion—why don’t we export them all?” Sax dismisses such charges, arguing that abortion has never been an exclusively national phenomenon. “In the 70s and 80s, women came to abortion clinics from all over Europe. Abortion has always been transnational, so I find it a very strange way of approaching the issue.” Moreover, Sax highlights the import of WoW’s involvement with pro-choice organizations from the countries they visit. “Women on Waves is very culturally sensitive, very careful. It’s naïve to think that discussions aren’t influenced from the outside. Women on Waves went to Ireland a year before the boat travelled to talk to people, find out what the actual situation was and figure out what groups are doing and to make contacts. If there was no contact, it was not happening. Medical doctors, women’s movement action groups, lawyers, counsellors, all those groups got involved. And then, due to the input from Irish organizations, the trip was postponed because elections were coming up.” 

Dr. Saharso stresses the importance of such contextual sensitivity, particularly when coming from an outside culture. “The very fact that women in the western world take action against or for a certain practice to help women is not culturally imperialist. Whether it becomes a neo-colonial way of approaching women depends very much on how they act, how they establish contacts with other women. If you believe in solidarity between women or between people across cultures, you have to try to engage in this sort of enterprise. Of course, it makes you vulnerable to critique because you intervene in other people’s lives and cultures. But otherwise, you get a very introspective movement, which was not really the idea when feminism began.” 

Women on Waves acts out of solidarity between women across cultures, but Gomperts feels very strongly that “abortion is not an issue of culture.” Cultural background or country aside, abortion is among the most-performed medical procedures in the world, explains Gomperts, her assurance filling the room. “The women will have abortions anyway, so Women on Waves is not imposing, just offering the option to do it safely. This is not about cultural imperialism but rather women’s reality.” As such, the WoW founder defends their actions as an internationally responsible response to a severe public health problem. The organization seeks to help “women who are dying, ostracized and discriminated against. We work together with local organizations to address the violation of women’s human rights. We are part of political process to change the situation, and to make it better for others.” 

Gomperts does believe that abortion is a human right. She points out that the “right to health, right to privacy and right to life are among the universal human rights and cover the right to abortion.” However, Women on Waves generally does not employ the human rights discourse because Gomperts finds it highly ineffective. “People are witnessing human rights violations everywhere. Its abstract, people don’t understand it. They only understand it the moment their rights are being violated.” This is the reason WoW frames abortion as a public health issue. “It’s much more effective to talk about women’s health than rights because it’s very concrete.” 

Although Women on Waves chooses not to talk in the terms of human rights, their actions nonetheless raise questions around the universality of those rights. In response, Dr. Saharso references the theory of philosopher Bhikhu Parekh, who believes that human rights are indeed universal but the way they are interpreted is culturally specific. Human rights are broadly designed and leave much room for interpretation. Therefore, Saharso argues, “When balancing different human rights against each other, one right may be favored over another, depending on the cultural context.”

In the perspective of Dorenbos, the Dutch director of Cry for Life, the fetal right to life would trump a woman’s right to health. Dorenbos stresses that he wants to protect human rights, given that the right to life begins at conception. Disappointment crept into his voice as he explained, “I was once at the United Nations Human Rights assembly, the only one who came with the abortion issue. It was very interesting, very defeating; I was not so welcome. Supposedly, everybody has right to say something about issues of human rights, but I was chased out. I found out the human rights movement is dominated by the pro-abortion people.” He described the tactics used by his foes to exclude unborn babies: “first, they were not medically humans—now, they’re just not wanted,” Dorenbos lamented. Still, the Cry for Life president had something positive to say about Women on Waves: “When they are active, it gives us another opportunity to talk about human rights. An unborn baby is a human, so our point is very clear.” When asked about women’s rights, he acknowledged their importance but retorted, “women’s rights have never included the right to kill her baby.” 

Especially when international human rights norms are invoked by both sides, the abortion debate inevitably starts and ends with the question of when life begins. Meanwhile, the problem surrounding human rights is not that people disagree that they should be respected but, rather, that they disagree about how the rights should be negotiated. While Women on Waves frames the question in terms of women’s lives, Cry for Life refocuses on the unborn child. In the end, ethical WoW opponents, religious or not, decry the exportation of Western, liberal abortion law to other parts of the world. Instead of engaging this accusation, WoW forwards its pro-choice goals by appealing to women’s health. Of course, there is no disputing that WoW seeks to export its message and services. However, feminists contend and we agree that cultural imperialism is an imposition of values quite distinct from WoW’s grassroots approach. Given that abortions will and do take place without WoW’s aid in countries where abortion is criminalized, the organization does not impose abortion as a solution but rather advocates safe abortion as a necessity. 

Women on Waves Navigates the Future

As Women on Waves abortion boats travel into the physical and cultural space of other countries, they enter dangerous and legally complex territory. The will to find legal loopholes attests to the ingenuity of Gomperts’ efforts to advocate for women’s right to health via abortion. More controversial is the moral defense of WoW, which operates less clearly under universal codes. Despite the implicit WoW belief that abortion is a human right, the organization in fact rhetorically publicizes and concretely defends women’s threatened health. It falls back upon the careful consideration of cultural context and the support it garners from local women’s organizations to deflect claims of neo-imperialism. Religious, national and ethical objectors dismiss these arguments. They decry WoW’s exportation of a “culture of death” and refocus the debate from the health of the woman to the unrealized life of the fetus. 

Nonetheless, Women on Waves and its opponents would likely agree on one thing: the organization masterfully incites dialogue around the world. As Marjan Sax gushed, “The sheer amount of press and dialogue WoW has created in the European countries its visited is very important. It’s not about abortion itself—in Ireland, the boat was there for one week only but the discussion went on.” Indeed, many have credited WoW with the reopening of the abortion debate and the subsequent passage of Portugal’s October 2006 referendum to legalize abortion. At this, Rebecca Gomperts laughed confidently: “Of course, Women on Waves caused the referendum. Not only because we were there, but also because their local organization, Doctors for Choice, was founded on the boat and was an essential part of the referendum’s success. And the rhetoric they used was ours.”

Accomplishments withstanding, uunder the current Dutch Christian coalition Women on Waves faces the passage of an ever-more restrictive permit this fall. Though the organization is preparing for what may be its last voyage, Gomperts requested that details not go public. Because she never saw WoW as a sustainable solution, Gomperts does not lament the end of an era. Since 80,000 to 100,000 women die each year due to illegal and unsafe abortions, the organizer believes, as do we, that the only real solution is legalization. In the meantime, WoW continues to research and dialogue; to provide information, counseling, abortion services and catalyze legal change; to navigate—nationally and internationally, legally and morally. 

Perhaps it is not surprising that Women on Waves should have to continuously jump through so many hoops to maintain itself and its mission. Despite the general agreement among international human rights lawyers that abortion is a women’s right, individual and governmental consensus remain elusive, at best, and impossible, at worst. However, we believe that abortion is, indeed, a human rights issue, as women continue to die from unsafe abortions—and so many more women suffer interminably under the control of patriarchal partners and governments, not centrally motivated to facilitate women’s autonomous and healthy decision-making and development. The Dutch government should recognize international law and the legality of WoW actions within it.  Rather than imbue the secular organization with its Christian values, the coalition should reissue the requested permit such that WoW can perform abortions in international waters up to 12 weeks of pregnancy. Moreover, the international community should take a stand, explicitly recognizing and moving to enforce, women’s right to the option of safe and legal abortions alongside access to sexual education, contraceptives and family planning. In the meantime, in this world of unequal rights, WoW’s innovative use of international law to highlight injustice, facilitate dialogue and create change should be a model for other human rights organizations.




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