A Dutch sailing vessel, known as the ‘abortion boat’, is sailing towards Portuguese waters and is expected to arrive this Sunday and stay until September 12.
A pro-choice group called Women on Waves has leased the ship, a white container transporter transformed into a floating gynaecological clinic. The group operating the boat says it will give advice on birth control and the AIDS virus in port and perform non-surgical abortions out at sea. It is equipped with a doctor, gynaecologist and a nurse, who will be able to provide women in the first six weeks of pregnancy with an abortion-inducing pill, as long as it sails out into international waters where Dutch law becomes applicable.
The ‘abortion boat’ provoked an angry backlash when it docked in Ireland in 2001 and Poland last year. The visit to Portugal is likely to be even more controversial because this country has some of the most stringent anti-abortion laws in Europe, only allowing for the termination of pregnancies in exceptional circumstances.
Rebecca Gomperts, the doctor who founded Women on Waves in 1999, estimates that there are between 20,000 and 40,000 secret abortions carried out in Portugal every year. “There is a terrible taboo around abortion in Portugal and we hope that our stay will re-launch the debate,” she says.
The group, which claims that a woman dies every five minutes, somewhere in the world, because of illegal or botched abortions, is expecting a tough reaction. The gynaecologist on board the ship, Gunilla Kleiverda, conceded that Portugal was a country where “the Catholic Church is still very powerful”.
José Paulo Carvalho, the President of the Portuguese Federation for Life, says that the boat “will be inciting acts that constitute a crime according to Portuguese law” and defended Portugal’s rigorous anti-abortion stance. “We always work to give women an alternative to abortion because human life deserves greater respect,” he says.