On Decemeber 30, 2011 , Facebook removed the profile picture of Rebecca Gomperts, which was text with information about how women can do abortions safely by themselves. Dr Gomperts is a well-known abortion rights activist and the Director of Women on Waves. Women on Waves is a charitable organization focused on women’s health and human rights.

Its mission is to protect maternal health by preventing unsafe abortions. Women on Waves sails a ship to countries where abortion is illegal. On board the ship the medical staff provides sexual education and healthcare services.

With the ship, early medical abortions (up to 6 1/2 weeks of pregnancy) can be provided safely, professionally and legally. Applicability of national penal legislation, and thus also of abortion law, extends only to territorial waters; outside that 12-mile radius it is thus Dutch law that applies on board a ship under the Dutch flag, which means that all our activities are legal.

Women on Waves’ efforts serve to draw much-needed public attention to the consequences of unwanted pregnancy and unsafe, illegal abortion. To date, the ship has sailed to Ireland, Poland, Portugal and Spain. Women on Waves also supported the launch of safe abortion hotlines in South America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East. (for more information see www.womenonwaves.org)

In 2005 it founded Women on Web, a telemedicine abortion service that provides medical abortions to women in countries where there is no access to safe abortion (www.womenonweb.org)

By removing the profile picture, Facebook is in gross violation of Article 19 of the Universal declaration of Human rights. Facebook has a social responsibility to guarantee human rights. Dr. Gomperts reposted the screenshot of the Facebook censorship message with the picture. She called upon all Facebook users that support abortion rights to repost the message on their page.

The picture is  actually a sticker  designed to provide information on how women can safely induce an abortion using a medicine called Misoprostol. The text is based on information and research from the World Health Organisation. So it is really quite safe.

The English-language text says that to induce a safe abortion women should buy 12 Misoprostol tablets at a pharmacy. They are advised to say the drugs are intended for ‘their granny who has arthritis.’ When the tablets are taken a few hours apart they will induce labour accompanied by abdominal cramps and vaginal bleeding eventually leading to a miscarriage after about 10 hours. Diarrhoea is the most common side-effect. In case of a high fever and severe pain women are advised to see a doctor, who should be told the patient suffered a miscarriage.

Legally unassailable

Women on Waves says the removal of the photograph is in violation of article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – which specifically mentions ‘the right to … seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media’ – and the European Convention on Human Rights. However, media and privacy lawyer Quinten Kroes says this not entirely true:

“Women on Waves refers to very basic human rights, such as the freedom of expression. These fundamental rights are primarily intended as protection from government interference, which is not what this is about. Facebook has not removed the profile photograph as a result of pressure from any government, but on its own initiative. From that perspective, Facebook could argue its own freedom of expression was at stake here. Facebook cannot be made to spread ideas the company does not support.”

Mr Kroes says Facebook’s legal right to remove the text is based on its’ extensive and legally unassailable terms of use: “They will undoubtedly include articles granting Facebook the right to remove specific texts because the texts violate certain norms or prompted complaints from other users.”

Dr. Gomperts reposted the screenshot of the facebook censorship message with the picture and called upon other facebook users to repost the image, which was done by hundreds of facebook users. However this picture was removed again and Gomperts was blocked from using her facebook account for 2 days. After receiving inquiries by journalist, facebook send an email to apologize and acknowledged that the picture did not violate any facebook users regulations.

Then Facebook apologised and restored the profile pic

The P.R. flap is reminiscent of what happened when Apple launched Siri late last year. Customers complained that they couldn’t search for abortion clinics using the software, which was widely reported in the media and blogs. Apple attributed the bug to a kink in the software, not any sort of corporate-wide abortion bias.

Do you think Facebook handled this situation appropriately?