Development & Aid, Europe, Headlines, Health, Human Rights

RIGHTS: ‘Abortion Ship’ Heads Back Home after Stand-Off with Portugal

Mario de Queiroz

LISBON, Sep 10 2004 (IPS) - The so-called “abortion ship” belonging to the Dutch pro-choice foundation “Women on Waves” (WoW) is on its way home after spending two weeks in international waters off the Portuguese coast.

The “Borndiep”, a converted tugboat, set off Friday for the Netherlands, the Portuguese news agency LUSA reported. The crew, led by Dr. Rebecca Gomperts, the head of WoW, had been planning to stay until Sunday but decided to leave early.

Portugal’s international image has been badly hurt by the case of the “Borndiep”, which was forced by two Portuguese warships to remain at least 12 nautical miles from the shore since late August.

The ship was invited to Portugal by local pro-choice groups with the aim of reigniting the debate on women’s reproductive rights.

Whatever was achieved by the publicity campaign portraying Portugal as a modern country fully immersed in the European Union (EU), launched during the Jun. 12-Jul. 4 2004 European football championship held in this south European nation, has been buried under countless articles in the foreign press presenting the image of a backwards country.

The “Borndiep”, which is now known around the world as the “abortion ship”, was to dock on Aug. 29 in the port of Figueira da Foz, 200 km north of Lisbon, to provide advice on abortion and contraceptives.

But it was repeatedly blocked from entering Portugal’s territorial waters, and was forced to stay in international waters, where Dutch laws would apply to the vessel and it would not be breaking Portuguese laws by offering the RU-486 or abortion pill to women in the earliest stages of an unwanted pregnancy.

Portuguese legislation allows the termination of pregnancy only in cases of rape; when a woman’s life is in danger or she is at risk of suffering permanent harm to her physical or mental health; or there is a risk of malformation of the foetus.

Defence Minister Paulo Portas ordered the Portuguese navy to block the entrance of the ship, on the argument that the government had to enforce respect for national laws and prevent a risk to “public health” and “social peace”. The government did not even allow the ship to refuel at a national port.

The measure was unprecedented in cases involving boats from EU member countries.

On Thursday, the crew was given permission from the harbour master to enter the port of Aveiro, in northern Portugal, to stock up on fuel to return to the Netherlands. But it was blocked from doing so by the “Baptista de Andrade” warship.

Activists and analysts said it was difficult to see the tiny “Borndiep” as a threat to another European country, since it sails under the Dutch flag, has a crew made up of six gynaecologists and nurses, and carries a cargo consisting of boxes of condoms, oral contraceptives, IUDs and ultrasound equipment.

Opposition parties and the Portuguese women’s and pro-choice organisations that invited WoW accused Portas, the leader of a small nationalist far-right party with ties to the governing conservatives, of imposing his “retrograde ideas” on Prime Minister Pedro Santana Lopes, who without that party’s support would not have the strength in parliament to govern.

Even many Portuguese who are not pro-choice say the government’s measures were totally out of proportion.

Francisco da Cunha, a practising Catholic and women’s rights activist, said that from a moral standpoint he does not “support the interruption of a life in gestation,” but added that “I cannot agree with authoritarian attitudes.”

Da Cunha said the use of military force “can only remind us of Salazarismo” – an allusion to dictator Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, who ruled Portugal from 1926 to 1974.

Activist Joao Machado criticised the government’s “arrogant, domineering and anti-democratic” blocking of the ship’s entrance into Portugal’s territorial waters, in which it “repressed as a crime something that had not yet taken place.”

The head of the opposition Socialist Party and president of parliament, Antonio de Almeida Santos, told the press Friday that the government “placed the country at the centre of an absolutely unnecessary controversy, where shades of the ridiculous were not lacking.”

The government “not only blocked the ship from docking in the port of Figueira da Foz, but it deployed two warships to the limits of our territorial waters, with the heroic mission of keeping it from passing that limit,” he added.

The Catholic Church largely steered clear of the controversy. But out of concern for Portugal’s international image, Januario Torgal Ferreira, bishop of the armed forces, actually recommended that the government allow the ship to dock.

An estimated 40,000 clandestine abortions a year are practised in Portugal. But it is poor women who must resort to abortions in substandard conditions, because those who can afford to do so take a plane to London, for example, where they have their pregnancies terminated in a modern, legal clinic.

“No one says abortion is good for women,” but WoW advocates safe abortions instead of those carried out in clandestine, dangerous conditions, said Gomperts, who unsuccessfully attempted to get the government’s decision overturned in court in Portugal.

According to Professor Boaventura de Sousa Santos at the University of Coimbra, the court ruling upholding the government’s ban on the entrance of the ship was not surprising, because “little can be expected from the Portuguese justice system, given its lack of experience in confronting the political powers that be and its atavistic lack of courage in the sphere of human rights.”

“No one could imagine that an EU country would threaten, with warships and its pathetic naval blockade of the ‘Borndiep’, a European non-governmental organisation dedicated to raising public awareness” on abortion, he added.

Portugal is the only EU country that takes women to court for undergoing an abortion.

In countries like Ireland and Poland, where the Catholic Church has a direct influence on the governments and which also have restrictive abortion laws, the practice is penalised, but those involved in terminating a pregnancy are not sent to prison, as occurs in Portugal.

Nor did Ireland and Poland bar the ship from entering their waters on its respective visits there in 2001 and 2003, when both countries made an attempt to present an image of themselves as tolerant and open-minded.

But in Portugal, “we are once again breathing the air of a retrograde, hypocritical country,” said de Sousa Santos.

The ultraconservative Portuguese group Motherhood and Life lodged an official complaint, asking that Dr. Gomperts be arrested for “incitement to abortion.”

Gomperts had appeared on television in Portugal to explain how to carry out a self-induced abortion safely.

She announced that the group’s struggle will continue, and said the next step will be to file a complaint against the Portuguese government in the European Court of Human Rights, and to denounce Lisbon in the European parliament and commission for violating EU agreements on free circulation.

But she said WoW’s mission successfully contributed to making the problem of abortion visible in Portugal.

Last weekend, Gomperts was visited by two Dutch lawmakers, who travelled to Figueira da Foz to express their support for WoW. They accused Minister Portas of “illegal, unjustified and disproportionate” action.

Lousewies Van der Laan, of the Democrats ’66 party, which forms part of the Dutch ruling coalition, said that when freedom of expression, association and information are violated, the European Commission has an important role to play.

She also wondered whether former conservative Portuguese prime minister José Manuel Durao Barroso, as president of the EU Commission (the EU executive arm), would “defend the European treaties, or will he merely be a Portuguese politician looking out for the national interests of his country in Brussels?”

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