Back home from Portugal

The Women on Waves ship Borndiep arrived back in the Netherlands on Tuesday the 14 th of September The ship and its crew had left for Portugal on august 23 on the invitation of the Portuguese organizations Não te Prives, Youth Action for Peace, UMAR and Club Safe.

The purpose of the ships visit was to call attention to the consequences of illegal abortion, to give information and sexual health education and to catalyze change of the restrictive abortion law.

The ship could also show another European reality; that women can be treated with dignity and are entitled receive proper abortion care. The medical staff of Women on Waves has permission from the Dutch government to provide the abortion pill to women with unwanted pregnancy in international waters under Dutch law. At least 20.000 illegal abortions are performed in Portugal each year. As a result of complications of these illegal abortions approximately 100 women have died unnecessary in the last 20 years. Moreover, at least 25 women have been prosecuted for having illegal abortions in the past couple of years.

When the ship arrived at Portuguese national waters, the Portuguese minister of defence Paulo Portas forbade the ship to enter national waters. Even though the ship would not have violated any Portuguese, Dutch or international laws with the activities on board, the Minister of Defence claimed the ship posed a severe threat to the national security. By denying the ship entry to Portuguese waters, the Minister violated all the international and European conventions and international recognized rights.

In spite of the fact that non of the crew on board, nor any of the Women on Waves volunteers had ever committed any crime and were never convicted, and the ship did not carry any weapons, two war ships guarded the Borndiep 24 hours per day while it was waiting in international waters.

The Dutch minister of Foreign affairs, Bot also acknowledged that the Portuguese had violated the international convention of the law of the seas and friendly requested entry of the ship. In the mean time two Dutch parliamentarians, L.van der Laan (D´66 ) and K. Arib (PVDA) especially came to Portugal to support the campaign.

The Portuguese government did not respond to the pressure of the Dutch government. Women on Waves went to court. Unfortunately the judge said she could not overturn the decision of the minister of defence since he has taken a discretionary decision. It was clear that the court was put under a lot of political pressure.

But even though the ship had not been able to enter Portuguese national waters, the mission did not fail. After it became clear the Borndiep would not be able to enter Portuguese waters this time, Women on Waves decided it should use another means to help Portuguese women with unwanted pregnancies. Women on Waves announced in the media it would publish a protocol on their website describing what the safest way is of using Misoprostol also known as Cytotec or Arthrotec for women in countries where abortion is illegal and not available. There has been a lot of scientific research about the use of misoprostol only to induce an abortion and it has proven a safe and effective way. Women on Waves decided to publish this protocol to prevent women taking recourse to unsafe abortion methods. The protocol is now available in English and Portuguese but will also be translated in other languages. The misoprostol manual is now our most visited webpage.
A Portuguese anti-abortion group accused Rebecca Gomperts for breaking the Portuguese law because she explained on the Portuguese television how an abortion can be done. The Dutch fundamentalist Christian party SGP stepped in to help the Portuguese anti- abortion organisation and asked the Dutch government to take away the license of Women on Waves. The Dutch state secretary of health answered that no laws had been broken.
Since the announcement of the possibility to do an abortion with Misoprostol only, hundreds of desperate Portuguese women have contacted the Women on Waves hotline to request the protocol.

The ship’s visit received a lot of support from the Portuguese population, according to an opinion poll done by Expresso 64% of the Portuguese Population considered the visit of the ship positive and useful. 66% disagreed with the decision of the Portuguese minister of defence to forbid the ship’s entry into Portuguese territorial waters.
A online survey done by Publico showed that 56% of the Portuguese population wanted abortion to be legalized immediately. And an additional 7% wanted it to legalize after the term of this government in 2006.

Women on Waves appealed the court decision and will continue to fight it until the injustice has been undone. But this might take years. The refusal of the entry of the ship has created a dangerous precedent. It will also affect other organisations that use ships in their missions such as Greenpeace and doctors without borders. Or next time it might be a gay cruise ship that will be refused entry into national waters. Any ship that has a message that a government of a country does not like can now be refused entry. The issue will also be debated in the European Commission.
When the legal battle concerning the decision of the Portuguese Minister of Defence, Portas to refuse the ship’s entry to national waters have been won, it will return to Portugal. Women’s rights are not a threat to national security.