Police stood by as a small white drone touched down in Northern Ireland last Tuesday on the banks of the Clanrye River. Two women, awaiting its arrival, turned to face news cameras before consuming the drone’s controversial cargo: pills used to induce an abortion.
A remote control speedboat would later send even more pills into the country in a coordinated, high-tech act of defiance to call attention to Northern Ireland’s restrictive abortion laws and the “absurd” lengths women there go to in order to safely terminate unwanted pregnancies.
“It was a symbolic action to show that if women want, they can access pills, especially in the context of Ireland and Northern Ireland where women travel continuously to England to access abortion services,” said Hazal Atay, an activist who worked on the drone campaign. “It was to show that abortion is a reality and when women want one, they will access it no matter what.”
Despite tough laws in Northern Ireland that ban abortions except when the mother’s life is at risk, Women on Waves, a nonprofit with a long history of navigating anti-abortion loopholes, managed to make the delivery with little resistance from police.
“It is illegal to take the pills [in Northern Ireland] when you are pregnant because it is inducing a miscarriage. Police questioned us, but we didn’t give any information about whether the woman was pregnant, [citing her right to privacy],” Atay said. “But the woman who took the pills could be questioned. We don’t know what will come next.”
Whatever happens, Women on the Waves will be prepared. The nonprofit has engaged in high-profile legal battles since 1999, when the group’s founder, Rebecca Gomperts, set out to find ways to serve women in countries with abortion bans.
In the pre-drone, pre-smart phone, pre-social media days, the answer was a ship, housing a mobile abortion clinic, providing the services in international waters. There, only the more liberal laws of the Netherlands, the ship’s home country, applied.
From Ireland to Portugal to Morocco, the women encountered obstacles like death threats to military surveillance, but always arrived prepared, having done their research and ensured they were acting within each country’s laws.
Still, their efforts were repeatedly thwarted. Moroccan authorities forced them to leave their waters in 2012, as protesters aggressively confronted activists on land. In a video, ship captain Myra ter Meulen showed bruises on her arms from a struggle that ensued after a group of protesters and police stormed aboard.
“They turned everything in the boat upside down, they looked everywhere, every little bag was opened,” she said.
The group wasn’t able to provide abortion services to Moroccan women, but they managed to advertise the phone number of an Arabic language hotline to advise women on how to safely terminate their pregnancies. Hundreds of calls, the group said, came pouring in.
Similarly, when military ships blocked their access to a Portuguese port in 2004, they managed to advertise their services in the round-the-clock media coverage that ensued.
Gomperts, for example, used an appearance on a Portuguese talk show to explain how women could use Misoprostol, a medicine then associated with stomach ulcers, to induce an abortion.
She also plugged a Portuguese instruction manual they had posted online for anyone who might have missed her skillful hijacking of the segment.
“After the show the hotline… [was] overwhelmed with phone calls from women who [wanted] to know how they can use Misoprostol,” the nonprofit wrote. “Some women [told] us that they immediately went to the pharmacy to buy the medicines after they had seen the show.” The page continues to be their most trafficked page.
Two and a half years later, Portugal voted to legalize abortion up to the 10th week of pregnancy.
For all the backlash Women on Waves has received, its activists say that wherever abortion is illegal, their services are in high demand—a message that has been reinforced amid the Zika crisis, which has left pregnant women across Latin America at risk of birth defects.
“We announced that we will offer help for free for women affected by Zika and that caused a 200 percent increase in the number of emails we received,” Atay said.
The help includes a remote medical evaluation by a physician and delivery of abortion pills via the mail.
Atay added that in the wake of the drone campaign in Northern Ireland, Women on Waves even received emails from people interested in abortion pill airdrops to their door. “They asked, ‘can you please send me them via drone?’ They thought that this is a regular service, so we had to explain, no it’s a campaign, but in fact we can help you.”
The development of new technology and rise of Misoprostol as “the abortion pill,” has made it easier for the nonprofit to reach women around the world without having to physically set sail.
Women on Web, their sister organization, has been matching women who want abortions with physicians who will treat them remotely and then ship the pills to the patients at home.
“If you look at our first ship, it was so big because at that time to perform abortions you needed to have a mobile clinic and it had to be under hygienic conditions, but now you don’t need a clinic,” Atay said. “So now we are not bound by these kinds of regulations anymore, and we can [provide abortion services] with a drone, by the internet, by the mail.”