The loophole artist
Ian Urbina is the director of The Outlaw Ocean Project, a non-profit journalism organization based in Washington D.C. In this column, In this column, he meets a woman who traverses the globe in a converted medical ship to provide abortions in places where it has been criminalised.
To understand the sea requires grasping it as an idea – reckoning with the emotion it invokes, and recognising the ingenious ways people use the place as a tool for their own ends. Though it is not entirely accurate to describe the ocean as lawless, it is certainly a confounding knot of jurisdictions, treaties, and national laws litigated over centuries of seafaring travel and commerce. Determining whether activity at sea constitutes a crime often depends on where in the water it happens.
A provision in maritime law treats a ship in international waters like a floating embassy, in effect a detached chunk of the land whose flag it flies. That means the laws that apply on board are only those from the country where the ship is registered.
A woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy, for example, is determined by which side of a state or country’s border she stands on. But one woman had the idea to look to the sea to circumvent the law of the land. Rebecca Gomperts, a Dutch doctor and founder of Women on Waves, traverses the globe in a converted medical ship carrying an international team of volunteer doctors that provides abortions in places where it has been criminalised. Running these often-clandestine missions since the early years of the twenty-first century, Gomperts has repeatedly visited the coasts of Guatemala, Ireland, Poland, Morocco, and a half dozen other countries, dangerously skating the edge of federal and international law.
For over 20 years, Gomperts has taken advantage of the legal loophole provided by the murkiness of international waters to provide access to medical abortions, which entail administering pills to induce miscarriage, for women otherwise left without options. Where a country’s federal law may forbid abortions, the jurisdiction of that law only reaches the limits of national waters, or twelve miles from shore. At the thirteen-mile mark, where international waters begin, abortion is legal on Gomperts’ ship because it flies the flag of Austria, where abortion is permitted.
Back in 2017, I joined Dr Gomperts aboard her vessel, the Adelaide. Partly my motivation in covering this story was that I needed a break. I was emotionally worn out, having spent more than a year on dozens of ships in the darker corners of the outlaw ocean. I craved a story with a different type of protagonist. Her organisation rarely received a warm welcome from the countries it visited. In Ireland, the ship faced bomb threats. In Poland, Gomperts was met in port by protesters throwing eggs and red paint. In Morocco, she was nearly accosted by an angry mob. In Spain, opponents tried to tow her boat. Gomperts stopped them by cutting their ropes.
In Mexico, the first trip out to sea was taken before the local government knew about the ship. The big obstacle was the weather. The boat ran aground twice and was nearly beached by the huge waves when leaving the port. On board were two young women, both in their 20s, both Mexican, who seemed frightened but resolute, and who had come to have abortions.
It took about six hours to get from shore to the 12-mile line that divides national and international waters and that’s where Gomperts, who is a gynecologist, administered a sonogram to see how far along the young women’s pregnancies were. Both were several weeks in, and Gomperts held a counseling session to inform the women of factors to consider. Whether this was the right decision and what they might expect in terms of the after-effects of taking the pills.
The second trip out was after Women on Waves had held a press conference. The provincial and federal Mexican government reacted strongly and tried every tactic to stop the ship from taking women out to international waters. The government first claimed that the crew did not have proper maritime and visa papers. It closed the port ostensibly due to weather. They threatened Gomperts with arrest for lacking permission to bring women out and back from international waters. None of these tactics withstood review by a Mexican judge and Gomperts’ lawyers.
In reporting on maritime mayhem, I’d found no shortage of bad actors who thought nothing of breaking the law. Mostly, their objective was to make more money, whatever the consequences might be for the workers and the health of the ocean. And yet, there was also a small handful of others that I encountered who held unwavering beliefs and who used the quirks of maritime law as a kind of secret weapon to advance their agendas.
While not everyone would agree with their positions on an issue, there was no arguing that these advocates and activists were clear about their beliefs. Gomperts was not breaking the law but taking advantage of a loophole in the outlaw ocean.
This column appears in ISSUE 32: SENTINELS OF CHANGE of Oceanographic Magazine
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