A Dutch doctor who has devoted her career to helping women safely terminate pregnancies in countries where it is illegal or difficult to access abortion has sued the US government for allegedly blocking her American patients from getting abortions by seizing their prescriptions.
Dr Rebecca Gomperts, who prescribes abortion drugs to patients around the world, filed a lawsuit in federal court in Idaho on Monday.
The lawsuit asked a judge to stop the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) from taking any steps that would prevent her patients from accessing abortion-inducing drugs.
“Her patients are most often young, some even as young as 14 years old, poor and powerless,” Dr Gomperts' lawyer, Richard Hearn, said.
“They are almost always victims of rape, emotional coercion by men holding power over them and/or physical abuse. For many, obtaining a medical abortion from Dr Gomperts is not only their best option, it is their only option for safely ending their pregnancies.”
Dr Gomperts, who has travelled the world delivering abortion drugs by drone and boat, started an organisation called Aid Access in early 2018. It helps women seeking first-trimester abortions – those which take place before the 13th week of the pregnancy.
She prescribes abortion-inducing medication via the Aid Access website and then the organisation provides women with information on how to fill their prescriptions using a merchant prescription drug exporter based in India. The pills are then shipped to patients’ homes.
India’s laws allow the exporter to legally export small quantities of drugs for a patient’s personal use.
According to the lawsuit, more than 40,000 women have contacted Aid Access since the organisation started, including roughly 37,000 women from the US.
Dr Gomperts has prescribed the abortion-inducing drugs to more than 7,000 of those – including roughly 40 women in Idaho, where the lawsuit was filed.
The doctor claims in the lawsuit that federal officials seized three to 10 doses of abortifacients she has prescribed in the past six months and alleges the government has blocked payments for some of the doses.
The FDA issued a warning letter to Aid Access in March – accusing it of misbranding the drugs and facilitating their improper distribution. She stopped providing medical abortions for women in America for almost two months after getting the letter but restarted the practice in May, according to the lawsuit.
“For many women seeking to terminate their unwanted pregnancies prior to viability, the only practical option is found on the internet,” Dr Gomperts and her attorney, Richard Hearn, wrote in the lawsuit.
There is a dearth of abortion providers in many rural states and there are many women who do not have the money and means to travel to other states to have their pregnancies terminated.
Abortion rights campaigners argue the procedure is already very difficult to access for huge numbers of Americans – particularly people of colour and those on a low wage. While opponents of abortion have become increasingly emboldened in their efforts to roll back women’s reproductive rights since Donald Trump entered the White House in January 2017, the issue predates the Trump administration.
Dr Gomperts launched Women on Waves in 1991 and provided reproductive health care and abortions in international waters to circumvent countries' restrictive laws.
Those wanting to terminate a pregnancy are generally faced with two options: a surgical abortion which sees the embryo or foetus physically removed from the womb, or a non-surgical medical abortion in which medication is essentially used to induce a miscarriage in the first few weeks of a pregnancy.
The drugs typically used for a medication abortion – misoprostol and mifepristone – are highly regulated by the FDA and doctors in America must have a speciality license to prescribe them.
“Everyday we get so many emails from women who are desperate for help and are desperate to have found somebody that can help them whether they have money or not,” Dr Gomperts told The Independent in a previous interview.
“Those with money can always travel to another country or find a good doctor but for many women, that is not possible”.