Oct. 17, 2008 -- A Dutch nonprofit organization is offering Spanish women free abortions on a boat anchored in international waters off Spain's coast.
The boat, operated by the abortion-rights group Women on Waves, arrived at the port of Valencia Thursday and began carrying out its first abortion procedures today.
Women who are less than 6½ weeks pregnant can board the boat, where they will be provided with free abortion pills under the supervision of a licensed gynecologist, said Rebecca Gomperts, Women on Waves' founder and director.
No surgery will be performed on the yacht.
"Abortion is a normal procedure," Gomperts said of her group's motivation. "By helping these women we are performing a symbolic act. We want to get this out of the realm of criminality and let women decide for themselves."
The drugs used are mifepristone (aka the abortion pill, RU 486, Mifegyn and Mifeprex) and Misoprostol (aka Cytotec, Arthrotec, Oxaprost, Cyprostol, Mibetec, Prostokos or Misotrol). They are used in combination. The first causes pregnancy hormones to stop being secreted; the second (usually taken several days later) causes the physical expulsion of the fetus.
Mifepristone and Misoprostol are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Abortion is illegal but decriminalized in Spain. Spanish women are allowed to get the procedure only in specific situations, including when carrying a baby to term is deemed dangerous to the mother's physical or mental health.
In practice, abortion activists say, thousands of abortions are performed in Spain each year, as psychiatrists will often attest to the procedure's medical necessity.
Sailing out to international waters allows Women on Waves to circumvent Spanish abortion laws when performing the procedures because more lenient Dutch standards apply when the ship is anchored outside of national territories.
"Out there they don't need a psychiatrist's permission," Gomperts told ABC News. "And women are perfectly capable of deciding these things for themselves."
A large sign on the side of the yacht lists the number for a hot line women can call to set up an appointment for an onboard abortion. Women can also schedule a meeting via e-mail or by visiting the ship.
The ship's arrival has sparked fierce protests in traditionally Catholic Spain.
"We think this is a provocation," Gador Joya, a spokeswoman for the Spanish anti-abortion organization Derecho A Vivir (Right to Live), told ABC News. "[It is] an incitation for women to do things, which are illegal in Spain."
Joya said her group is planning to march in protest of the boat's arrival.
"Abortion is a real problem," she said. "It is damaging for women. [It] is a tragedy for women who go through it."
Both supporters and protesters greeted the ship as it tried to dock in the Spanish port of Valencia Thursday, Gomperts said.
"They even tried to stop the ship from mooring," she said of the protesters. "There were two small boats in the harbor trying to prevent us from docking. There was a bit of a struggle. But we managed to do so anyway."
An unspecified number of pregnant women seeking abortions boarded the boat today, Gomperts said, accompanied by a larger group of nonpregnant women who served as cover to protect the patients' privacy.
"We are very concerned with the safety of the women on board the ship," Gomperts said. "We never know what's going to happen."
The boat will return the women to shore today, Gomperts told ABC News. It will set out again with another group of patients Monday, weather permitting.
It is not the first time Women on Waves has been in the news. In previous years, the so-called "abortion boat" has traveled to waters off the coast of Ireland, Poland and Portugal, causing widespread protests in each case.
When the ship tried to dock in Portugal in 2004, the Portuguese government sent two warships to keep the yacht from entering the country's national waters.
"They felt we were a danger to them," Gomperts told ABC News of the Portuguese efforts to keep the boat from reaching the country's coasts. "But since then abortion has been legalized in Portugal. And that's a great achievement."
ABC News' Ben Barnier contributed to this story.