Abortion Rights Blog

The national pro-choice campaign

Portuguese ban on abortion ship creates furore over women’s rights

By Elizabeth Nash in Madrid

09 September 2004

Politicians in The Netherlands have condemned the Portuguese government for banning a so-called Dutch “abortion ship” from docking in Portuguese waters.

MPs criticised the “intimidating, disproportionate and exaggerated” reaction to the Women on Waves campaigners, reigniting Europe-wide criticism over Portugal’s restrictive abortion laws.

Despite the ban, Portuguese sympathisers have chartered a boat to ferry women to the Borndiep, which has been anchored off the port of Figueira da Foz, near Coimbra, for nearly a fortnight. The purpose of the ship is to provide advice, abortion pills and contraceptives. RU-486 pills are banned in Portugal, where women face three years in jail for breaking one of the strict anti-abortion laws.

“Portugal is not an island; it forms part of the European space where women’s rights must be respected,” said Khadija Arib, an MP for the Dutch opposition Labour Party, after visiting the ship. Her companion, Lousewies Van de Laam, criticised the Portuguese for sending a warship to keep the Borndiep at sea.

“I don’t see why it’s necessary to send a warship to intimidate a tiny vessel with a crew of six,” said Ms Van de Laam, MP for the D66 party, which is a member of the Dutch ruling coalition.

Women on Waves, based in the Netherlands, first began campaigning in 1999 and visited Ireland in 2001 and Poland in 2003 to assist women to carry out abortions. Portugal has one of Europe’s highest rates of botched clandestine abortions – up to 40,000 a year – and teenage pregnancies.

Dutch gynaecologists and specialist nurses travelled to Portugal in the Borndiep at the request of four Portuguese women’s organisations. The government’s ban, on public health grounds, was reinforced on Tuesday by a court ruling. It was welcomed by the far-right Defence Minister, Paulo Portas, who likened the women’s shipboard campaign to drug trafficking. “If Portugal allowed the ship into its waters, it would not have authority against illegal fishing, drug trafficking or clandestine immigration,” Mr Portas said. “We cannot allow what is illegal on land to be legal in our waters.”

The Dutch Foreign Minister, Ben Bot, has urged Portugal to allow the ship to dock.

Rebecca Gomperts, the founder of Women on Waves, defied the ban by appearing on Portuguese television to explain how to carry out an abortion safely. Ms Gomperts told viewers of SIC morning television on Tuesday that she had bought a drug prescribed for rheumatism, the abortion-inducing Arthotec, in a Lisbon chemist without prescription. She promised to post on the campaign’s website “a scientific manual for safely inducing abortions … using medicine widely available in many countries” including Portugal.

The initiative prompted the anti-abortion Portuguese Association for Motherhood and Life to demand Ms Gomperts be arrested on the criminal charge of incitement to abortion.

The Young Socialists organisation plans to ferry women to the Borndiep to receive treatment and information. A group of doctors also plans to make the trip on Saturday.

Portuguese feminists have mounted a petition to reform the law, which bans abortion after 12 weeks unless the woman’s life is at risk.