Dutch Abortion Boat Grounded for Life

Abortionist and activist Rebecca Gomperts told Dutch news media yesterday that her abortion ship is being permanently docked due to changes in the abortion laws in the Netherlands.

Women on Waves had been successful in its main purpose, Gomperts said, which had been to promote the use of the abortion pill RU-486 in countries where it is outlawed. However, the Dutch government has now restricted the distribution of the pills to recognised abortion facilities, which do not include her abortion ship.

A spokesman for the Netherlands health authorities also said that Gomperts’s organization, Women on Waves (WoW), may be facing prosecution for illegal distribution of abortifacient drugs from a rented yacht moored off the Spanish coast in 2008. “WoW is only licensed to distribute abortion pills from its floating clinic. As WoW did not request the license be transferred to a yacht, they were breaking the law,” said the spokesman.

Gomperts told the NRC Handelsblad newspaper that the greatest achievement of Women on Waves has been the establishment of Women on the Web, an internet site, registered in Canada, where women can order the abortion drugs for delivery to countries where they are outlawed. Gomperts said that in 2007, about 150 of the pills were being distributed through the site per month. “It must be up to several hundred by now,” she added.

“It is such an important project, helping women in more than a hundred countries. I don’t want to say anything that could jeopardise the project. A lot of people want to thwart its efforts.”

Gomperts, who got her start in activism with Greenpeace, called the threat of prosecution “quite remarkable,” and said that “resistance to abortion is growing in The Hague” under a coalition government that includes the Christian Democrats and the ChristenUnie. She said her group would be contesting the new rules in a lawsuit.

Gomperts said that the ship, a converted tugboat dubbed the “death ship” by Argentine media in 2006, had been intended as a means of overcoming the laws in those countries where abortion was restricted, sailing from port to port offering women “medical abortions.”

Gomperts said, “I figured we would sail from country to country and help x number of women per day.” Women on Waves had planned to send the boat to Nicaragua, Chile, Brazil and Argentina, but these trips have been cancelled.

In its maiden voyage, the abortion ship went to Ireland in 2001, carrying a staff of two doctors and one nurse. It has since been to Poland where it was pelted with eggs by Polish youth and searched for illegal drugs by Polish customs officers.

The attempt in 2004 to land the ship in Portugal was met with strong resistance from the government, who ordered it to be blockaded by a warship, a move that garnered a rebuke from the European Union’s Court of Human Rights. But Gomperts boasted that one of the most successful projects of Women on Waves had been to influence Portugal, then under a new Socialist regime, to loosen restrictions on abortion by the 2007 referendum.

But Gomperts said her dream of a fleet of boats committing surgical as well as chemical abortions has failed. “The abortion boat is a myth,” she said.

“There are people who think we provide practical help all over the world. Of course it’s a pretty sight: a ship entering a harbour full of women saying: abortion is a right. And then there will always be people wanting to stop the boat. The result is a symbolic fight that speaks to the imagination.”

The real purpose of the boat, however, was as a propaganda and publicity tool, she said. “Our only real strategy is letting women know that there is such a thing as the abortion pill. They have to know that there is medication available for pregnancy termination.”

In October 2008 Women on Waves received permission to use a converted sea container to perform curettages (surgical abortions) up to 12 weeks pregnancy. This project will also be abandoned and the mobile surgical facility will be sent to the Boijmans Van Beuningen museum in Rotterdam as an exhibit of “feminist art.”

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