'Abortion ship' sails into Christian storm

Vessel that made waves by offering termination services in pro-life countries may be sunk by new Dutch law

Even the law of the land has never been able to stop Rebecca Gomperts.

The Dutch doctor has been a fervent pro-choice campaigner for more than 10 years, and in order to extend those rights to women who would otherwise be denied them, she hit on an ingenious plan: anchor a ship outside the territorial waters of "pro-life" countries, and distribute abortion pills to women who wanted them from there.

Since only Dutch law would apply to a Dutch ship in international waters, her opponents could do nothing to stop her. The plan seemed watertight. But now her work could be over. A draconian change in the Dutch law looks set to force the "abortion boat" back to port.

Rebecca Gomperts has started a court action to challenge the new law, which she says represents "a growing tendency towards restriction and intolerance" in Dutch politics.

Dr Gomperts, 43, has become both a global heroine and a global figure of hate since she announced in 1999 that she would use Dutch law and the international law of the sea to provide "floating abortions" to women in the Third World but also in anti-abortion European countries, such as Portugal, Malta and Ireland.

Although her original intention was to offer off-shore surgical abortions, her ship has, in fact, supplied only "abortion pills" to be used in the very early stages of pregnancy.

Previously, Dutch women could obtain abortion pills from their doctor and bring on a miscarriage at home in the first two weeks of pregnancy. This is also legally possible in France and several other EU countries. But under a law passed by the Dutch coalition government in May, the prescription and use of abortion pills has been limited to approved clinics.

"The change in the Dutch law means that women in other countries would no longer be protected and could be prosecuted if they came to our ship," Dr Gomperts said yesterday. "We do not want to take that risk. We have suspended the voyages that we planned this year off the coasts of Nicaragua, Chile, Brazil and Argentina."

Dr Gomperts insists however that the Women on Waves campaign is not over, despite the setback. "We have started a legal challenge to the new Dutch law. I am confident that we can have it overturned as an unfair restriction on the liberty of women. If so, we will resume our voyages."

For many years the Netherlands was the paragon of a liberal and permissive society, a model to some and a dire warning to others. But recent years have seen a shift in the political consensus towards a more restrictive approach. This has partly been driven by the rise in the crime rate and increasing drugs problems but there has also been a complex shift in the once stable pattern of Dutch politics.

Dr Gomperts says that she believes that the new abortion law was driven by party political or coalition pressures, rather than by a genuine change in the Dutch consensus. For the past three years the Dutch government has been a hybrid coalition of large centre-right and centre-left parties and a small Christian party, the Christen Unie or Christian Union. "There is a growing tendency towards restriction and intolerance since the Christian party came into government," Dr Gomperts said.

Asked if she thought that pressure from other countries to stop the activities of Women on Waves may have influenced the new law, she said: "No. I don't think it's that. I think this was all about internal Dutch politics."

As a further sign of a shift in Dutch government attitudes, the country's health inspectorate this week urged the state prosecution service to take action against Women on Waves for distributing abortion pills off the coast of Spain. Dr Gomperts' "abortion ship" visited the Spanish coast last October – before the new law was passed.

Women on Waves originally envisaged a whole fleet of abortion ships constantly cruising the world, offering surgical abortions by trained doctors. A movable abortion surgery was constructed out of a ship's container.

In fact, although the legend of a globe-trotting, clinical "abortion ship" persists, Women on Waves never carried out off-shore, surgical abortions. "For various practical reasons, but also because the abortion pill proved to be a far more useful tool, we have never performed a single clinical abortion," Dr Gomperts said.

Women on Waves, she said, was always partly a "symbolic struggle" – a way of drawing attention to the "calamitous" effect across the world of restrictive anti-abortion laws. "Every year, 20 million women have illegal abortions. Every year 70,000 women die as a result. That is a death rate of one in every 300 abortions. The death rate from the abortion pill, by contrast, is one in 500,000," she said. "Our real strategy has been to publicise the existence of the abortion pill and, where possible, to provide it directly."

Dr Gomperts used to be the ship's doctor of the Greenpeace vessel Rainbow Warrior II. It was during that vessel's visits to Latin America, she says, that she first became aware of the suffering caused by unwanted pregnancies and illegal abortions in the developing world.

However, she claims that her greatest success was to change the abortion law in an EU country. "The visits of our ship helped to start the campaign which led to a referendum decision to legalise abortion in Portugal in 2004," she said.

Dr Gomperts is also involved in another organisation, the Canadian-registered Women on Web, which makes abortion pills available by mail – sometimes for free – to women in countries where it is illegal. A doctor asks 25 questions over the internet to check for counter-indications. The pills are then sent in a plain envelope.

"For many women this is huge progress," Dr Gomperts said. "Women in countries where abortion is illegal live under tremendous stress. They go to unreliable websites where they are offered fake pills. There is also a [Women on Web] help desk where women can talk about their worries. There are no taboos online; there is no shame to talk."

Right to life: Where abortion is illegal

* Abortion is illegal, or severely restricted, in more than 120 countries, including many where sharia is enforced and some where Christian "pro-life" groups have seized the political initiative.

* European countries where abortion is illegal include Malta, where it has been banned since 1981, and Ireland, where a referendum in 1983 upheld "the right of the unborn to life".

* Nicaragua is among the countries where the abortion ban allows of no exceptions, even where a minor has become pregnant through rape or giving birth could result in the death of the mother.

* In parts of Nigeria under sharia, women who have aborted a pregnancy can be convicted of culpable homicide and sentenced to death.

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