The "abortion boat" changes course

Citing legal barriers and overwhelming demand, Women on Waves decides not to perform abortions in Ireland.

Published June 15, 2001 8:32PM (EDT)

Women on Waves, the Dutch organization that planned to perform abortions in international waters for women in countries where abortion is illegal, said on Friday that it will not be able to continue with its plan.

Spokeswoman Mary Muldowney talked to Salon Friday by cellphone from the boat, which is now docked in Dublin.

Muldowney cited two reasons for the organization's decision: a legal skirmish with the Dutch government over whether abortions performed on the boat, christened the Aurora, would be considered legal; and overwhelming demand for abortion from Irish women.

Although Women on Waves applied to the Dutch government for a license to perform abortion, the license did not arrive in time, and the group decided to set sail anyway. Holland's Justice Minister Benk Korthals told the Dutch Parliament that the medical staff of the Aurora could face a fine and up to four and a half years in prison if it was determined that they performed illegal abortions.

"It has always been our mission to offer women access to free, safe, legal abortion," said Muldowney. "We couldn't have women put into a position where they wouldn't have the full protection of Dutch law."

Muldowney says that by 5 p.m. on Friday the foundation had received calls from more than 250 pregnant women requesting an abortion. "It's an indication of the kind of desperation these women have that they would be willing to go through a media frenzy to have access to safe, legal abortion. We regret very bitterly that we will be unable to go through with our original plan."

Muldowney said that other arrangements are being made to aid the women who have contacted the organization, including fundraising for those without the means to travel to England for a legal abortion.

Meanwhile, Women on Waves Ireland will continue to work to legalize abortion in Ireland. "The Women on Waves boat was never envisioned as a permanent structural solution to this enormous problem," said Muldowney. "We have done extremely well in raising international awareness about the legal situation in Ireland."

The Aurora is expected to continue its tour of Ireland over the next two weeks, offering contraception, the morning-after pill and information to women.

Muldowney said that it is expected that the license will come through within two weeks. At that point, Women on Waves will look at its funding situation to decide where to go next.

Although several anti-abortion groups had indicated that they planned to protest the Women on Waves boat, so far there has been only a single minor incident, when an individual climbed onto the boat and attempted to hang posters.

By Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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