What the ‘Abortion Drone’ Will (And Won’t) Mean for Reproductive Rights (Updated)

The Poland "abortion drone" is causing a splash in the media and excited buzz in the reproductive rights community, but it has also become a source of misinformation and anxiety.

The Poland "abortion drone" is causing a splash in the media and excited buzz in the reproductive rights community, but it has also become a source of misinformation and anxiety. Shutterstock

UPDATE, June 29, 2:59 p.m.: The first-ever abortion drone flight was a success Saturday, Women on Waves founder Rebecca Gomperts told Rewire. Two women in Poland received and took abortion pills that were delivered to them via drone from Germany. While German police failed to stop the flight, Gomperts said, they threatened criminal charges, and also confiscated the drone controller and some personal iPads belonging to activists. It is “totally unclear on what grounds” criminal charges could be brought, Gomperts said, and official charges could take months. The group’s lawyer is looking into the case.

The first-ever “abortion drone” is scheduled to launch Saturday and deliver abortion pills to women in Poland, getting around that country’s restrictive abortion laws.

The action is causing a splash in the media and excited buzz among reproductive rights advocates, some of whom envision a future in which reactionary state legislatures are no match for nimble robots armed with mifepristone and misoprostol. But the drone has also become a source of misinformation and anxiety, with some media reports garbling the facts and some activists questioning the project’s methods.

The innovative and unusual use of technology has the media’s attention, with Gizmodo raving that “Abortion Drone is the Best Drone” and comparisons being made to Amazon and Google’s proposed drone delivery services. Meanwhile, anti-choice groups in Poland have reportedly vowed to shoot the drone down if they can find it.

The headline-grabbing campaign is the brainchild of Women on Waves, a Dutch group known for keeping ships in international waters to give safe medication abortions to women living in countries that have outlawed abortion care.

Many media reports have been confused and inaccurate about how the drone’s pill distribution will work, Rebecca Gomperts, founder and director of Women on Waves, told Rewire in an interview.

Some reports have said that the pills will go to women’s groups who will then distribute the pills to women in need, or that the drones will drop packages over the Polish town.

“It’s not going to drop boxes full of abortion pills over Poland,” Gomperts said, laughing. “That’s ridiculous. It’s not how we work.”

Another report said Gomperts refused to say who the pills would go to and how.

But Gomperts set the record straight to Rewire in no uncertain terms: The pills will go directly from the drone to the women who are seeking an early abortion, with no intermediaries, she said. That means the local women’s groups openly participating in the action won’t be putting themselves at risk by illegally distributing the medication.

The women seeking abortion care are involved with those local groups, Gomperts explained, but only the women who are taking the pills will handle them. Women on Waves will confirm the women’s identities both in person and with a camera on the drone.

The drone will be small, less than five kilograms, and it won’t travel far—just a quick jump across a river and an international border, from Frankfurt an der Oder in Germany (where abortion is legal) to the town of Słubice, Poland (where it isn’t), staying within eyesight the whole way to comply with drone regulations.

The drone will carry mifepristone and misoprostol, a combination of drugs approved by the World Health Organization for safe termination of a pregnancy of up to nine weeks. Only two or three women are expected to take the pills—as long as they are still ready and willing to take the drugs on the day of the launch.

“We want to give space to them to decide to do it or not to do it,” Gomperts said.

The drone’s mission, Gomperts said, is twofold: providing a few women access to needed services, and raising awareness about the social injustices of illegal abortion.

That awareness serves both to inform women that they have the power to safely terminate their own pregnancies, Gomperts said, and to put pressure on governments to change their draconian anti-choice policies. Poland prohibits abortion except in very limited circumstances, and even then allows doctors to opt out of performing the procedure.

The drone operation is legal, or at least not technically illegal. The scale is small enough that no authorization is needed from either the German or Polish governments. And since Poland only criminalizes doctors who perform illegal abortions, not women who abort their own pregnancies, the women who will take the pills on the other side of the river shouldn’t be in any legal danger.

Gomperts said the local women’s health activists in Poland, who she has been in contact with since an earlier ship campaign in 2003, jumped at the chance to participate in the drone campaign.

“The Polish groups are very excited, and they are very happy to do this,” Gomperts said.

Some reproductive rights activists in other countries, however, are less enthused about the idea of an abortion drone coming to their borders.

The Global Post reported that Gomperts plans to try the drone program in other countries where abortion is illegal or restricted, such as Ireland, Brazil, and Mexico, if Saturday’s delivery is a success.

Sonia Correa, co-chair of the global research forum Sexuality Policy Watch and a longtime reproductive rights activist in Brazil, told Rewire that she and several other activists in her network were “horrified” at the prospect of abortion drones coming to Brazil.

“It’s just going to be an additional problem to cope with,” Correa said. “We need people to understand the conditions in which we are operating, and whatever type of support they provide needs to be in tandem with an understanding of the context and in negotiation with us. It cannot be parachuted.”

Correa said the electoral victories of conservative political segments in Brazil have become so regressive and sexually repressive that the risk of backlash from such a splashy media event would be too great.

Women are already being prosecuted as smugglers for taking misoprostol, which is illegal in Brazil, Correa said. She envisions police staking out a previously advertised abortion drone site to make arrests, or anti-choice groups capitalizing on the event to demonize feminists as using “weapons of mass destruction,” drones, against unborn children.

“For those of us who have been for so many years struggling for abortion rights within a solid human rights frame, a health rights frame—to see the right to abortion be so intimately associated with an instrument that in the popular imagination is correctly seen as an instrument of war … that imagery is very troubling and negative,” Correa said.

Gomperts clarified to Rewire that Women on Waves doesn’t have plans right now to go to Brazil or the other countries mentioned by the Global Post, and that the organization always consults closely with local groups before taking action. She mentioned those places as potential candidates for future actions, she said, but she recognizes that a country like Brazil with more restrictive policies would require a different approach.

“I really want to focus on what’s going to happen here [in Poland],” Gomperts said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen, so we have to really learn from this moment and then make decisions on where and how and what we can do in the future.”

She added that drones are also increasingly used for humanitarian and commercial purposes, and she urged activists not to restrict their strategies based on fears of backlash.

“The anti-abortion groups will say whatever they want. They will use anything,” Gompert said. “I think it’s more important to stay positive and creative and try to find indeterminate legal spaces where you can actually move ahead and create change … than to be afraid of backlashes.”

Other reproductive rights advocates are cheering the campaign as an innovative action that could help expand access to safe abortion.

“I think it’s a really excellent way of calling attention to the fact that women want access to safe abortion, and they are willing to do whatever it takes to get it,” Alice Mark, senior clinical advisor to the international reproductive rights group Ipas, told Rewire. “This is one possible way of getting the safest medications into their hands.”

Writing for Dame Magazine, reproductive rights journalist Robin Marty fantasizes about a “drone-led abortion revolution” that wouldn’t just work within the increasingly restrictive anti-choice regime in the United States, but instead “break it wide open.”

Gomperts said the United States is unlikely to see a Women on Waves drone, even though she decries the “desperate” and “unbelievable” situation where women in states like Texas are running out of options for safe abortion access. Her organization prefers to focus on countries in which abortion is illegal and women have even fewer options, she said.

Still, she hopes abortion rights groups in the United States might follow her lead someday. She’s excited about the possibilities for the technology, and she hopes it might give a boost of positive energy to activists who are burned out by relentless attacks on women’s human rights.

“It also has something fun about it,” Gomperts said. “Of course you’re not allowed to say ‘fun’ when you’re talking about abortion, but it’s not just negativity and heaviness and suffering. I mean, abortion is also a positive experience for a lot of people.”