Finally, early abortions possible

Women on Waves is very pleased that the Dutch Minister of Health, Els Borst, has ascertained unambiguously that its floating womens health clinic can provide the abortion pill for very early abortions on board a Dutch ship. This means that Women on Waves can continue with its activities- albeit with restrictions- and will sail again soon.

The Ministers decision makes it possible to implement the international policies desired by the Dutch government. At international conferences the Dutch delegation regularly pleads for womens right to self-determination of which the right to abortion is part.

In the Netherlands no license is needed to provide very early pregnancy terminations (till 45 days of pregnancy). Minister Borsts statement invokes a 1995 High Court decision that determined that these treatments fall outside the Dutch abortion law. The Minister has informed us that with the provisions taken by Women on Waves, the ship can in fact guarantee safe and medically responsible treatments. Women on Waves considers this a confirmation of the professionalism and care of its medical work.

In April 2001, before our pilot voyage to Ireland, Women on Waves applied for a Dutch license to provide first trimester abortions in its mobile treatment room. In February 2002 the application for the license was officially denied. Women on Waves appealed that decision, since with this license it would also have been able to help women with later pregnancies (until 12 weeks). Unfortunately, the appeal Women on Waves filed against the denial of the license has also been declared without merit.

In making her decision, Minister Borst followed the findings of the Ministry of Health Appeals Commission that gave two reasons for denying the license: 1) Women on Waves could not meet the requirement for a contract with a nearby hospital while operating abroad, and 2) continuous and unannounced visits by the health inspection would not be possible.

This means that the Appeals Commission is being stricter with Women on Waves then the law requires. The contract that Women on Waves signed with a Dutch hospital fulfils the same requirements that apply to all other Dutch abortion clinics. Furthermore the Appeals Commission has not taken into account recent medical developments. According to Women on Waves, first trimester abortions can be provided very safely at sea. A medical expertise report, signed by more than 100 doctors, gynecologists, other experts and two marine doctors and submitted to the commission, has fully endorsed this conclusion. The distance to a hospital is therefore totally irrelevant when providing first trimester abortions.

As regards the second reason for denying the license, the Appeals Commission claims that the Health Inspection cannot supervise the activities of Women on Waves since continuous and unannounced inspections would not be possible. This however is not a regulation stipulated by the law. By using this argument the Appeals Commission has failed to apply the law properly. Furthermore, as a seagoing nation, the Dutch government has never had any problems enforcing all kinds of laws on ships registered under its flag. Moreover in the past 20 years there have never been any unannounced inspections of Dutch abortion clinics or other institutes. Nevertheless Women on Waves has offered to establish certain provisions that would make continuous inspections possible. Here too the judgment of the Appeals Commission has been far too strict.

Despite the fact that Women on Waves is disappointed by the denial of its application for a license, we are very pleased by the Ministers recognition of the quality of our services and her clear statement that Women on Waves can legally provide very early abortions using the abortion pill. Our next projects are already in full preparation. Women on Waves is also currently consulting with its legal team concerning possible juridical steps in order to continue to help women in need worldwide.