The Population Council welcomed Dr. Rebecca Gomperts, an abortion activist and lifelong supporter of women’s rights, as guest speaker for the 2022 Sheldon Segal Lecture Series—a collaboration between the Council and the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole (MBL).

In her lecture, titled “Abortion Pills in the Hands of Women,” Gomperts discussed the evolving global landscape on abortion, historical usage of mifepristone and misoprostol, and movements and activities to expand global access to reproductive health services.

Gomperts is founder and current director of Women on Waves, an international organization that has provided safe abortions on ships in international waters near countries where abortion is illegal and delivered abortion pills across borders by mail and robots. In 2005, she created Women on Web, a platform to provide abortion pills via the mail around the globe. In 2018, Gomperts launched Aid Access to provide access to medical abortion to Americans using telehealth and the US mail.

Describing the global landscape on abortion and its evolution over the past few decades, Gomperts noted that while most countries that have changed abortion laws during this time put in place more liberal policies, the United States has restricted abortion—especially following the 2022 Dobbs v. Jackson Supreme Court decision overturning the constitutional right to abortion. (Gomperts’ lecture took place before the most recent elections in the US, which resulted in a number of states further limiting abortion access.)

Gomperts argued that most countries still do not take into consideration a woman’s preference to self-administer abortion pills at home, which is as much of a barrier to abortion access as restrictive abortion laws. She took a moment to recognize the potential of using mifepristone as a contraceptive, sharing that research investigating this use was first published in the Lancet in 1991. Despite this knowledge, research on mifepristone stalled because of abortion stigma.

The Sheldon J. Segal Lecture Series honors the legacy of Sheldon “Shelly” Segal, a vice president and distinguished scientist at the Population Council and former chairman, trustee, and visiting investigator at MBL. Segal was deeply committed to ensuring that women have high-quality and long-acting contraceptive options. He directed research that led to the development of contraceptives, including intrauterine devices and implants. Currently, 170 million women worldwide use a highly effective contraceptive developed by the Council or based on our technology.

Noted guest lecturers for the Sheldon J. Segal Lecture Series, hosted by the Population Council and the Marine Biology Laboratory–Woods Hole

2013: Cristiane Nüsslein-Volhard at the Marine Biology Laboratory

2014: Alan Guttmacher at the Population Council

2015: Jonathan Gitlin at the Marine Biology Laboratory

2016: Wafaa El-Sadr at the Population Council

2017: Dyann Wirth at the Marine Biology Laboratory

2018: Quarraisha Abdol-Salim at the Population Council

2019: Nipam Patel at the Marine Biological Laboratory

2021: Peter de Menocal at the Marine Biology Laboratory