On 11 June 2001, Women on Waves set sail from the Netherlands with an almost entirely female crew for the Republic of Ireland, a country with the most restrictive abortion law in Europe. Women on Waves was invited by several Irish abortion rights organisations.
The aim of the trip was to highlight the hypocrisy of the Irish abortion situation; catalyse efforts to liberalise the abortion law there; to build coalitions for legislative reform; and to test the feasibility of using a ship as a reproductive health clinic. The trip was made at the invitation of the Dublin Abortion Rights Group and Cork Women's Right to Choose group. Our plan was to provide reproductive health services on a ship, including the abortion pill, outside Ireland's territorial waters.
We decided to go to Ireland first for several reasons. Most importantly, Ireland has a dedicated pro-choice community whose members expressed immediate interest in the project. With the participation of more than 100 Irish volunteers, Women on Waves Ireland was formed. They took charge of all the logistics necessary for the ship's visit and organised workshops with doctors, lawyers, artists and writers. They worked with impressive commitment and continuous energy, making it possible to receive hundreds of visitors on board the ship. Furthermore Ireland is only two days sailing from the Netherlands, which made it a feasible place for a pilot project, and we wanted to raise this issue within the European Union before sailing to other parts of the world .
However, this was the first such effort by Women on Waves and we encountered some problems. We were sailing a Dutch ship and according to Dutch abortion law a clinic needs a special licence to provide terminations after 45 days of pregnancy. The abortion pill, mifepristone + misoprostol, has been registered only for use up to 49 days of pregnancy in the Netherlands, which means its use falls outside the requirement to get authorization to provide the service under Dutch law. Nevertheless, in March 2001 we applied for a license, so as to forestall any concerns about patient safety on board ship. The treatment-room, had been set up to comply with the requirements of Dutch abortion law. However, three days before sailing, the Ministry of Health in the Netherlands announced that it would inspect the clinic at a date three weeks after the planned Irish trip, to determine whether it could be licensed for first trimester abortion provision.
Then, when the ship was well out to sea and on its way to Ireland, a debate was started in the Dutch Parliament about Women on Waves and its license, under pressure of questions posed by members of the Christian parties. Although the tone of that debate was generally positive, and the Minister of Health expressed her confidence in the doctors on board the ship, it left Women on Waves with serious worries about whether we would be prosecuted once back in the Netherlands. In the meantime, we were informed that the Irish port authorities required us to have an Irish passenger licence in addition to the Dutch passenger license we had.
Irish women's response to the ship
By the time we arrived in Ireland we had received 80 calls from women requesting abortion services. We did not have nearly enough mifepristone pills on hand to meet this demand. In fact, the extent of demand surprised everyone, including our Irish partners, who assumed that Irish women would easily prefer to travel to Britain. All these obstacles forced us to abandon our original plan to provide the abortion pill, which we deeply regretted. Even after it was announced that we would not provide the abortion pill, phone calls kept coming in.
After five days, 300 women had contacted the ship's hotline. They included women who had been raped, schoolgirls who could not find a feasible excuse to go to England for a couple of days, mothers who could not pay for childcare during their journey to England, and political refugees who did not have the papers to travel and already had an uncertain future. While some women who called the hotline sought counselling, many others had already made up their minds and simply needed accurate information about clinics abroad. We did set up a structure to help the women who needed an abortion. The medical staff on board provided the telephone numbers of clinics in England and the Netherlands, together with advice on how to make arrangements to get there. At the same time, women began visiting the ship. We counselled women with unwanted pregnancy, did pregnancy tests, did ultrasound scans to establish duration of pregnancy and provided information. We also distributed contraceptives of all types as well as the morning-after pill. There were always visitors on the ship to support the initiative, to join workshops or just to see the clinic.
While the medical staff were constantly at work in the treatment room and took turns answering the hotlines, the different workshops that had been organized took place on board. The ship was used for exchange of information and expertise and as a platform to create dialogue, reflection and debate about issues of choice. At the end of the medical and legal workshops the participants decided to set up the organisations Doctors for Choice, which now has more then 150 members, and Lawyers for Choice. All the workshops were well attended, not only the more obvious legal and medical ones but also for artists and writers, in order to broaden the context of the problem concerning abortion rights. One of the most basic human rights is the right of women to choose, to be able to control our own minds and bodies. This is linked very closely with all forms of artistic expression as well.
We had anticipated that there might be violence against the ship or its crew, and extensive security measures were taken on board. Research by the Feminist Majority Foundation (FMF) suggested a strong connection between violent anti-abortion terrorists in the USA and Irish anti-abortion groups. The FMF therefore trained all the volunteers before the ship arrived and as an additional measure to safeguard the security of the ship and its crew, they sent three women staff members to Ireland for the ship's visit. However, the only visible sign of protest was a medium-sized cruiser, organized by the Irish branch of Human Life International, named Baby Watch. We did, however, receive a number of threats, mostly bomb threats, by telephone and e-mail.
The visit to Ireland created front-page news all over the world, from Brazil to Japan, and was covered by BBC World, CNN and numerous other news agencies. An online opinion poll by CNN with 16,500 participants showed that 49 per cent were in favour of the ship's activities. This is, in our opinion, a surprisingly positive outcome for such a controversial action. In Ireland as well the press coverage was unexpectedly positive.
"Ireland needs women like this to rock the State's boat" (Irish Examiner, 18 June 2001)
One journalist even apologized for her middle-class mentality as she had assumed in an earlier article that all Irish women could easily travel to Britain and that there would be no need for the ship.
We helped to make visible the problem and the need for legal abortion services in Ireland, even though we were not able to perform abortions as we intended. Everybody was surprised by the reality behind the lack of access to abortion within Ireland. Through the large numbers of women contacting the ship, people became aware of the extensive class differences between women able to access abortion abroad and the dramatic impact on less-informed women and those living in rural areas. Women living in poverty, young women and asylum seekers are suffering most under restrictive abortion laws even in Ireland, even though Britain seems so close.
Women on Waves has contributed to building international and national pro-choice coalitions and helped to put the issue of illegal abortion and women's reproductive rights back on the international agenda. The Irish journey has received a great deal of praise and Women on Waves has received many invitations from groups all over the world. The Irish pro-choice community has been activated and grown tremendously in the course of the preparations for the ship's visit, and was prepared for the new abortion referendum on 6 March 2002. Happily they won the No-Vote with a narrow margin of 51 % . At the very least the ships visit has helped to prevent the abortion laws in Ireland to get worse.
In June 2002, the Dutch Minister of Health, Els Borst, has ascertained unambiguously that its floating women's health clinic can provide the abortion pill for very early abortions on board a Dutch ship.