A drone like this one will be used to transport abortion drugs into Poland. Photo: Women on Waves.
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Meet the woman sending abortion drugs to Poland by drone

“We wanted to draw attention to the different realities of women’s rights within Europe – how different life can be for women just a few hundred metres apart.”

At around midday on Saturday, a drone will touch down in Słubice, a small town on Poland's western border. Its cargo? Several doses each of the drugs Mifepristone and Misoprostol, which, taken together, constitute an abortion. 

“This is not an air drop,” Rebecca Gomperts tells me over the phone, days before the delivery is due to take place. “This is an individual delivery method – we’re not dropping bags full of abortion pills into Poland.” At the moment, Gomperts and her team at Women on Waves are planning to deliver “less than five” doses to individual women who need them during the drone’s single trip across the border. But there’s a good chance the drugs may never reach their destination: “We’ve already heard that there will be people trying to shut down the drone.” 

For the past few months, Gomperts and her team, along with partner women's organisations in Poland, have been figuring out a way to get the drugs across the border from Frankfurt, Germany, where abortion is legal, into Poland, one of the handful of European countries where it is not. As long as the drone remains in eyesight of the operator, carries non-commercial cargo, and doesn’t carry a package weighing more than 5kg, they believe they’re on the right side of the law. The pills, meanwhile, can only be used by women in their first nine weeks of pregnancy, and don't require a doctor's supervision. 

The work of Women on Waves is focused around the strange fact that women on one side of a border, in, say, Germany, have free and safe access to abortions, while women within shouting distance might not: “We wanted to draw attention to the different realities of women’s rights within Europe. How different life can be for women just a few hundred metres apart.” Gomperts trained as a doctor in the Netherlands, but was heavily influenced by an early visit to a Greenpeace boat, where she would later work – as she says in Vessel, a 2014 documentary made about Women on Waves, she “never really saw myself in a white coat”. 

The organisation was founded in 1999, after Gomperts realised that in international waters, the laws of the country where the boat is registered apply - not those of the closest jurisdiction. This means a doctor could perform legal abortions a few miles off the coast of countries where they are banned. So Gomperts built a clinic in a packing container, loaded it onto a ship, and set sail from the Netherlands. 

The waterborne clinic made its first stop in Ireland in 2001, but its maiden voyage didn't quite go as planned. The team were still waiting to hear from Dutch authorities about whether they needed a special licence to administer the drugs (they later found out that they don't), and had to leave Ireland without carrying out any procedures.

The angry reaction of the country's media and pro-life lobby didn't make life easy, either, but, as the team swiftly realised, all publicity really is good publicity. The operation was covered around the world, and Women on Waves soon began to hear from women in other countries who needed their services. 

Since then, Women on Waves ship campaigns have gone out to Poland, Portugal, Spain, and Morocco. Gomperts now mainly operates through Women on Web, an online version of the Women on Waves project, which sends abortion pills out by post to women who need them for a donation of around 70 Euros (though women can also abstain if they’re in a “very difficult economic situation”). Visitors to the site are advised to take a pregnancy test and, if possible, an ultrasound, then fill out an online 25 question consultation which will be reviewed by one of Women on Web's doctors. In most countries, women won't be prosecuted for having an abortion, even if they are illegal there. 

So is the the drone experiment really necessary if women can receive the drugs by post? Gomperts says she heard about companies like Amazon and Google making deliveries by drone, and didn’t see why it couldn’t work for their medication. “We follow all new developments in new technologies, and want to use everything we can to make sure that women have access to safe abortions”.

Then, of course, there’s the media coverage the idea has already generated – an “abortion drone” garners a lot more attention than a postal service for abortion drugs. “Like all of our work, the drone project is a combination of raising awareness and actually delivering the services which are needed,” Gomperts says. “And women are entitled to that worldwide attention – for the violation of their rights, and the enormous social injustice they’re experiencing.”

If all goes well, Gomperts is hoping to try out the same method elsewhere: “There are still quite a lot of borders in the world where on one side, abortion is legal, and on the other it's not.”

 

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As any medical professional would admit, abortions dealt out by post or by drone are not ideal. Women don’t meet a doctor for consultation face to face, and must work out for themselves if there’s any reason the procedure wouldn’t be suitable for them.  

But the abortions offered by Women on Web and Women on Waves are relatively safe: they’re carried out during the first few weeks of pregnancy, and are non-invasive. The World Health Organisation even recommends that inpatient care isn’t necessary for abortions under nine weeks, and that taking the second of the two pills at home can actually be more relaxing for the woman in question. In fact, Mifepristone and Misoprostol carry a lower mortality risk than penicillin. 

So of the 50,000 underground abortions reportedly carried out in Poland every year, I have a feeling the handful offered by Gomperts and her team will be some of the safest. Until the law changes in countries around the world, abortions administered by vigilantes like Gomperts may represent the only safe access women have to their right to control their own body.

The first drone operation will take place on Saturday 27 June, and Women on Waves is hoping to livestream the event. Check their website for details. 

Barbara Speed is comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.

Photo:Getty
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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.