The "abortion boat" steams toward Ireland

Women on Waves will provide medical abortions to women in international waters.

By Carina Chocano

Published June 14, 2001 6:53PM (EDT)

Earlier this week, a 100-foot converted fishing trawler, christened the "Aurora" but also widely referred to as the "Sea of Change," left the Dutch port of Scheveningem for Ireland. The Aurora belongs to a women's human rights organization called Women on Waves, which was founded by Dutch physician Rebecca Gomperts. Since leaving the Netherlands, the ship -- which was due to dock June 14 at Dublin's Sir John Rogerson's Quay -- has been besieged by bad weather and worse news.

The Aurora carries aboard it two Dutch doctors, one Dutch nurse and the "A-portable," a mobile gynecological unit fitted inside a shipping container equipped to provide nonsurgical abortions to women living in countries where abortion is illegal. The Aurora, which is registered in the Netherlands, is subject to Dutch law while in international waters; so Irish women wishing to terminate their pregnancies will be taken 12 miles offshore where they will be administered RU-486, otherwise known as the "abortion pill." Gomperts devised this plan while working as a doctor on Greenpeace's anti-whaling vessel the Rainbow Warrior.

The Aurora's crew planned to spend three weeks in Ireland educating women and healthcare providers on reproductive health and family planning as well as providing medical abortions to as many as 20 women per day before continuing on to Brazil. Two days after the ship set sail, however, Holland's Justice Minister Benk Korthals told the Dutch Parliament that "abortions are illegal without a license," and that the Aurora's medical staff could face a fine and four and a half years in prison if it is determined that they performed unlicensed abortions. The Women on Waves foundation reportedly applied for a license before leaving the Netherlands, but set sail before receiving it.

According to Women on Waves' spokesperson Joke van Kampen, who spoke to Salon yesterday from Dublin, the organization has asked the government to clarify which laws apply to them.

"The government is investigating in cooperation with us," she says. "They never used the word 'illegal' in reference to us. What he said was that performing illegal abortions in the Netherlands can result in four years in jail. When we get back to the Netherlands, they will inspect the clinic closely."

Van Kampen said that the upcoming government investigation will not alter the foundation's plans to provide offshore abortions to Irish women "where medically appropriate."

"It won't affect it at all," van Kampen said. "It might affect Women on Waves and the position of the doctors, but it does not in any way affect our clients in Ireland."

Korthals has said that no action can be taken until the boat returns to the Netherlands.

As storms delay the ship's arrival, Human Life International, an Irish pro-life group, says it is coordinating the launch of a counter-mission, "Operation Babe-watch." The group's director, Patrick McCrystal, told the Belfast News Letter, "We have commissioned a lifeboat to sail and offer a 'life' alternative to women instead of death. We are offering practical pregnancy counseling on our boat, priestly spiritual assistance on board and guaranteed practical help and support during and after a woman's pregnancy."

Meanwhile, Bishop Michael Cox -- whose boat, the Little Bishop, is normally chartered for offshore baptisms and marriages -- has said he will sail to meet the ship as it enters Irish waters, and has vowed to fight the ship out at sea if necessary.

"I am calling on all fishermen of good conscience and all those with ships and boats to join me on this," Cox has said.

Van Kampen said yesterday that the crew of the Aurora has not encountered any seafaring pro-life activists. It has been reported, however, that Aurora's crew may be issued bulletproof vests to protect them against possible hostilities.

Ireland is one of three remaining European countries, along with Poland and Malta, where abortion remains illegal. At least 6,000 women per year travel to England each year to obtain abortions.

According to Women on Waves, approximately 25 percent of the world population lives in countries with highly restrictive abortion laws, yet about one-third of all pregnancies are unplanned and one-fourth of all pregnant women worldwide choose to terminate pregnancy. The World Health Organization estimates that of the 53 million abortions performed annually, 20 million of them are performed illegally under unsafe conditions.

Carina Chocano

Carina Chocano writes about TV for Salon. She is the author of "Do You Love Me or Am I Just Paranoid?" (Villard).

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