The right to safe abortion, to determine when and if to become a parent and the right to healthy sexuality is an issue of both human rights and social justice. Access to safe abortion and legalization of abortion can prevent unnecessary suffering and the death of women.

In countries where abortion is legal and available, abortion is an extremely safe procedure. Making abortion illegal does not reduce the number of abortions; it simply reduces the safety of abortion. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) 20 million of the 42 million abortions performed every year are illegal and unsafe – furthermore, worldwide more than a third of all pregnancies are unplanned. Induced abortion is one of the most commonly performed medical intervention in every country in the world. The legalization of abortion can prevent unnecessary harm and the death of millions of women around the world. Currently, approximately 25 % of the world population live in countries – mainly in Africa, Latin America and Asia – with highly restrictive laws that either ban abortion entirely or permit it only to save the life of the pregnant women. These restrictive abortion laws violate women's human rights based on agreements made at the UN International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

It is time to make abortion legal, safe and accessible in every country of the world, so that the right to health is a reality for every woman – regardless of age, race, income or geography.  


The core work of Women on Waves and Women on Web consists of the use of medical abortion. Medical means using a combination of pills to cause the non-surgical termination of an early pregnancy up until the 10th week of pregnancy. The safest, most effective type of medical abortion requires the use of Mifepristone and Misoprostol, which both are on the World Health Organization's list of essential medicines. Mifepristone blocks the hormone Progesterone, which is required to sustain a pregnancy. Without this hormone the attachment of a fertilized egg to the uterine wall is disrupted and the uterus contracts. Misoprostol enhances contractions and helps to expel the products of conception from the uterus. Mifepristone with Misoprostol combined are proven to be highly effective, safe and acceptable for early, first trimester abortions. The effects of this method of abortion include cramping and prolonged menstrual-like bleeding. Common side effects include nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. The risk of serious complication, however, is exceptionally low. Research indicates that it is safe to perform the medical abortion procedure at home as long as the woman lives near a hospital or other emergency service. The pills can either be placed under the tongue or inserted into the vagina. If the Misoprostol has been used under the tongue, the pills should dissolve within 30 minutes. If the pills have been inserted vaginally, traces may be found in the vagina up to four days after inserting them.

The symptoms of a miscarriage and an abortion with pills are exactly the same. Therefore, in case of complications doctors know exactly how to handle it and cannot determine the cause of the miscarriage, after the pills have fully dissolved. But medical abortions performed in the first ten weeks of a pregnancy inherently have a very low risk of complications. In fact, the risk is the same as when a woman has a natural miscarriage. Out of every hundred women that perform medical abortions, only two or three have to go to a doctor, first aid center, or hospital to receive further medical care.


Women on Waves was founded in 1999 by Rebecca Gomperts. Its aim is to prevent unsafe abortions and to empower women to exercise their human rights to physical and mental autonomy. We trust that women can do medical abortions themselves and try to make sure that women have access to medical abortion and information through innovative strategies. But ultimately Women on Waves is about giving women the tools to resist repressive cultures and laws. Not every woman has the possibility to be a public activist but there are things we can all do ourselves. Working in close cooperation with local organizations, Women on Waves wants to respond to an urgent medical need and draw public attention to the consequences of unwanted pregnancy and illegal abortion. Women on Waves supports the efforts of local organizations to change the laws in their country.

Women on Waves projects so far (using all possible undetermined legal spaces and tactics):

  • Ship campaigns (Ireland 2001, Poland 2003, Portugal 2004, Spain 2008, Morocco 2012, Guatemala and Mexico 2017)
  • Training local women’s organizations (Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Malawi, Bangladesh, DR Congo)
  • Safe abortion hotlines (Ecuador, Chile, Argentina, Peru, Venezuela, Pakistan, Indonesia, Kenya, Malawi, Thailand, Poland, Morocco, Sudan, Guatemala)
  • Internet (Women on Web)
  • Collaboration with artists (AvL, Yes Lab, Augmented reality, etc)
  • Abortion Drone (Poland 2015, Ireland 2016)
  • Abortion Robot (Northern Ireland 2018)

Campaigns are the main activities of Women on Waves as they are a powerful tool to form public opinion. It was a campaign with the abortion ship that initially and promptly shifted the attention to abortion on request and to a worldwide human rights context.

On June 16, 2003 Women on Waves set sail for Poland. We were invited by a coalition of Polish women's organizations, called the STER committee-women decide, to support them in their struggle for legal and safe abortion. In the mobile clinic of the Dutch ship Langenort, Women on Waves offered a range of activities and services including workshops and information on sexual health. In addition to these services, the medical staff could also provide safe and legal early medical abortion care (up until 45 days of pregnancy) after sailing into international waters, where Dutch law applied. During the two week-stay in Poland, hundreds of women in difficult social and economic circumstances, some of them in great despair, called the Women on Waves’ hotline, which was publicized through the media. Dutch and Polish speaking volunteers answering the hotline worked under supervision of medical staff.

A similar campaign was planned for Portugal. There though, the Women on Waves ship Borndiep stayed in international waters, off the coast of the small holiday town Figueira da Foz, from August 28th until September 9th, 2004, as it was being blocked to enter Portuguese national waters by two Portuguese war ships. Still the campaign was a success: Portugal‘s president ratified a law allowing women to obtain abortions until the 10th week of pregnancy. Finally, two and half years after the ship visited Portugal, the national referendum on abortion took place February 11th, 2007. Approximately 60 % of the Portuguese voted in favour of women's right to abortion up to the 10th week of pregnancy. Finally, abortion became legal in Portugal. Portuguese women do not need to suffer any more as a result of the restrictive abortion laws.

In collaboration with women's rights organizations in Guatemala, the abortion ship has also visited Guatemala from February 22nd until 25th, 2017 to call attention to the violation of women‘s human rights caused by the restrictive abortion laws. Although Guatemalan law only permits abortion to save a woman‘s life, nearly 65.000 abortions are performed annually in the Central American country. Every year about 21.600 women are hospitalized and 660 women die from complications of unsafe abortions, even though these deaths would be preventable by legalizing abortion. On the request of the president of Guatemala himself, the military expelled the ship and the crew for violating public order, national interests and state security without any court order or other legal procedures. This unprecedented military crackdown shows that access to abortion is about fundamental freedom and democracy. In two days more than 60 women called the safe abortion hotline and we were able to help by referring them to partner organizations. This large number confirmed that there is an enormous problem caused by unwanted pregnancies in Guatemala and the urgent need to offer these women a safe solution. This can only be done by legalizing abortion. The abortion ship made the headlines in Guatemala for three days and was covered by international press. It has called attention to the violations of women’s human rights by the restrictive abortion laws prohibiting the public about abortion pills. The international alliance that formed for this campaign has empowered and encouraged many people to stand up, speak out in public, network with others and exchange their experiences to advance the way towards safe legal abortion in Guatemala. In order to guarantee the future freedom to peaceful protest and activism in Guatemala all participating activists agreed that it is very important to continue with the legal battle against the expulsion of the crew in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

Another successful campaign was the Abortion Drone: The drones departed from Germany and landed on the opposite side of the river in Slubice, Poland. While crossing the German/Polish border, German Police tried to intervene, but the drone pilots were able to safely land the drones at the Polish side where two Polish women swallowed the abortion pill. German police confiscated the drone controllers and personal iPads claiming there was a violation of the Arzneimittelgesetz. After an extensive investigation the charges were dropped in May 2016. The Abortion Drone also flew from the Republic of Ireland to Northern Ireland at Narrow Waters Castle on June 21st, 2016. After the drone landed safely two women took the pill.

The latest campaign involved a robot: Operated from Amsterdam, the abortion robot successfully delivered abortion pills in Northern Ireland in May 2018. There was an overwhelming amount of police officers present during the action and unfortunately police arrested the robots. The location of the planned action was dominated by at least 20 heavily armed police men and four arrest-vans. In the afternoon, however, we boarded the Bus4Choice and toured Northern Ireland offering free ultrasounds and medical counsel. The campaign highlighted the different legal reality of women in Northern Ireland in need of a safe abortion and was a collaboration of Women on Waves, Women on Web and ROSA, a socialist, feminist pro-choice activist group from Ireland.


After the first boat campaigns and in response to a growing number of help-emails from women around the world, Women on Web was founded. It is a telemedical abortion service that supports women living in countries where safe abortion is not available. What it means in practice is that women can order the pills online and get them delivered to their home address. The website mainly consists of two projects: The I had an abortion-project and the I need an abortion-project.

The I need an abortion-website refers to licensed doctors. After completing an online consultation and making sure there are no contraindications, the medical abortion (with the pills Mifepristone and Misoprostol) will be delivered by post. A medical abortion can be done safely at home as long as women have good information and access to emergency medical care in the rare case that there are complications. At the end of the consultation they will be asked to donate at least 70-90 Euro, depending on the country and the woman‘s economic circumstances. The donation not only supports the services of Women on Web, but also helps women in a difficult economic situation to still have access to a safe abortion.

The I had an abortion-project on the other hand supports women seeking abortions, promotes access to this basic right, and brings about social change. Women who have had abortions do not need to suffer in anonymous silence any longer. The site is a forum for all who will not hide in shame but who will openly discuss their choices, for all who will let their voices be heard, either to show their support or to share their experiences. When participating you help to end the systematic shaming of women around the world.

Verónica Fernandéz and Krisztina Les