Anti-abortionists charter boat to confront 'Aurora'

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The Independent Online

A Dutch ship offering on-board abortions for Irish women will meet a head-on challenge from "pro-life" protesters when it arrives in Dublin port this morning.

A Dutch ship offering on-board abortions for Irish women will meet a head-on challenge from "pro-life" protesters when it arrives in Dublin port this morning.

The anti-abortion lobby has vowed to object to the ship's presence "in the strongest possible way". This statement is in stark contrast to its earlier promise simply to ignore the boat and its operations. Adding to the tension were reports that the crew of the Aurora would have to don bullet-proof vests as they sailed into port.

The Aurora is equipped with facilities to terminate pregnancies and more than 50 Irish women, frustrated by the republic's ban on abortions, have inquired about its services. The ship had been expected to dock yesterday but bad weather hampered its passage.

Human Life International (HLI) has chartered its own vessel, which will shadow the Aurora as it proceeds through Dublin Bay. "We won't be attempting to crash into the boat, but they will know we're there," the group said.

The Aurora, a converted fishing trawler, is owned by the Dutch-based Women on Waves group. Termed a "floating reproductive health centre", an on-board medical team provides clients with contraceptives, abortion information and abortions.

The Dutch government pledged this week to take action against the ship's crew if they proceeded with plans to administer the drug RU-146, which induces abortions. Under Dutch law, a permit is needed to do a termination and Women on Waves has yet to be granted such a document. The Dutch Health Minister has warned the group that its members could face up to four and a half years in prison if they are in breach of the law.

Women on Waves denies its offer of abortions is a publicity stunt and remains adamant it will provide a termination service for Irish women. "Terminations where medically appropriate and under the ten-week stage will take place. That's one of the main reasons the ship is here," the group said. More than 50 Irish women have already contacted the group to inquire about obtaining an abortion.

The ship, under the leadership of Dr Rebecca Gomperts, will operate in international waters, more than 12 miles off the Irish coast. Security guards will protect women as they board the vessel.

"Pro-life" organisations denied their protests would be violent. "We simply aim to counteract the deadly propaganda being put out by this group. We will offer, as an alternative, practical advice and counselling to guide women through pregnancy," said David Walsh, of HLI.

More than 6,000 women seeking abortions in England last year gave addresses in Ireland. The real number travelling for terminations is believed to be much higher. The introduction of abortion to Ireland has been rejected in a series of referendums.

Deirdre Jones, manager of the Marie Stopes clinic in Dublin, believes the abortion ship is not offering any real solution to the problem. "My concern is for the women who do choose to go along to this ship. How will they be guaranteed discretion and how will they be given aftercare? We'll have to wait and see but, at this point, I'm apprehensive."

Yesterday, several family planning clinics in Dublin reported wide public interest in the ship and said some women had cancelled appointments at London clinics.

Women on Waves, meanwhile, defended its decision to allow the media three hours' access to the ship this afternoon. "We're just responding to huge international demand," the group said.