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.

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The Women's March against Trump matters – but only if we keep fighting

We won’t win the battle for progressive ideas if we don’t battle in the first place.

Arron Banks, UKIP-funder, Brexit cheerleader and Gibraltar-based insurance salesman, took time out from Trump's inauguration to tweet me about my role in tomorrow's Women’s March Conservative values are in the ascendancy worldwide. Thankfully your values are finished. . . good”.

Just what about the idea of women and men marching for human rights causes such ill will? The sense it is somehow cheeky to say we will champion equality whoever is in office in America or around the world. After all, if progressives like me have lost the battle of ideas, what difference does it make whether we are marching, holding meetings or just moaning on the internet?

The only anti-democratic perspective is to argue that when someone has lost the argument they have to stop making one. When political parties lose elections they reflect, they listen, they learn but if they stand for something, they don’t disband. The same is true, now, for the broader context. We should not dismiss the necessity to learn, to listen, to reflect on the rise of Trump – or indeed reflect on the rise of the right in the UK  but reject the idea that we have to take a vow of silence if we want to win power again.

To march is not to ignore the challenges progressives face. It is to start to ask what are we prepared to do about it.

Historically, conservatives have had no such qualms about regrouping and remaining steadfast in the confidence they have something worth saying. In contrast, the left has always been good at absolving itself of the need to renew.

We spend our time seeking the perfect candidates, the perfect policy, the perfect campaign, as a precondition for action. It justifies doing nothing except sitting on the sidelines bemoaning the state of society.

We also seem to think that changing the world should be easier than reality suggests. The backlash we are now seeing against progressive policies was inevitable once we appeared to take these gains for granted and became arrogant and exclusive about the inevitability of our worldview. Our values demand the rebalancing of power, whether economic, social or cultural, and that means challenging those who currently have it. We may believe that a more equal world is one in which more will thrive, but that doesn’t mean those with entrenched privilege will give up their favoured status without a fight or that the public should express perpetual gratitude for our efforts via the ballot box either.  

Amongst the conferences, tweets and general rumblings there seem three schools of thought about what to do next. The first is Marxist  as in Groucho revisionism: to rise again we must water down our principles to accommodate where we believe the centre ground of politics to now be. Tone down our ideals in the hope that by such acquiescence we can eventually win back public support for our brand – if not our purpose. The very essence of a hollow victory.

The second is to stick to our guns and stick our heads in the sand, believing that eventually, when World War Three breaks out, the public will come grovelling back to us. To luxuriate in an unwillingness to see we are losing not just elected offices but the fight for our shared future.

But what if there really was a third way? It's not going to be easy, and it requires more than a hashtag or funny t-shirt. It’s about picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves down and starting to renew our call to arms in a way that makes sense for the modern world.

For the avoidance of doubt, if we march tomorrow and then go home satisfied we have made our point then we may as well not have marched at all. But if we march and continue to organise out of the networks we make, well, then that’s worth a Saturday in the cold. After all, we won’t win the battle of ideas, if we don’t battle.

We do have to change the way we work. We do have to have the courage not to live in our echo chambers alone. To go with respect and humility to debate and discuss the future of our communities and of our country.

And we have to come together to show there is a willingness not to ask a few brave souls to do that on their own. Not just at election times, but every day and in every corner of Britain, no matter how difficult it may feel.

Saturday is one part of that process of finding others willing not just to walk a mile with a placard, but to put in the hard yards to win the argument again for progressive values and vision. Maybe no one will show up. Maybe not many will keep going. But whilst there are folk with faith in each other, and in that alternative future, they’ll find a friend in me ready to work with them and will them on  and then Mr Banks really should be worried.