Abortion Controversy Takes to the Seas

ByJennifer Askin

L O N D O N, April 20, 2001 -- A controversial subject in many arenas, the abortion debate is now headed into uncharted territory — the high seas.

In the tradition of offshore radio stations, tax havens, and casinos, Women on Waves, an Amsterdam-based organization, is planning to launch the world's first floating abortion clinic.

An all-female Dutch crew, including a gynecologist, will staff the vessel.

The ship itself is yet to be officially chosen but plans are in place for it to be purchased, prepared and test-sailed before the end of the of spring.

A mobile treatment room, which will be transferred and installed on the ship, is currently being constructed in the Netherlands.

Organizers plan to circumvent the laws of countries opposed to abortions by conducting them offshore in international waters.

Territorial Claims

Dr. Rebecca Gomperts, coordinator of the foundation, said funding had been received from groups around the world and that the $190,000 needed for a trial run was already in place.

The ship will moor just 12 miles offshore, targeting countries where abortions are illegal or very difficult to obtain.

According to Women on Waves, two-thirds of the globe's population lives within 100 miles of port cities, so the ship will in theory be accessible to a majority of women worldwide.

The group estimates one in four women worldwide live in countries that ban abortion or allow it only in cases where the mother's life is endangered.

Gomperts said performing the procedures 12 miles out to sea would place the ship under international law and not the laws of the nearest country.

Complex Jurisdictional Issues

However, some experts believe this interpretation may vary from country to country.

Gomperts says she is well aware of the challenge. "This will certainly raise questions. It has never been done before and there are some very complex jurisdictional issues."

Gomperts and her staff will live aboard the ship and hope to have facilities to provide abortions to as many as 25 women at a time. Only first-trimester abortions will be performed, and the services will be free to those unable to afford them.

Gomperts was once a ship's doctor aboard Greenpeace's Rainbow Warrior and credits her service onboard that ship as the inspiration for her creation of Women on Waves. She claims that every year, there are 53 million abortions worldwide, of which 20 million are performed in unsafe conditions.

But skepticism is likely to arise over safety onboard her ship — how safe the conditions will be and how safe patients will be attempting to get to the ship. Gomperts says security measures will be just the same as if the clinic was on dry land.

"It is not dependent on one particular place, so this will be good for security," Gomperts told ABCNEWS.com. "If there is trouble, we can just move."

Anticipating Trouble

Gomperts anticipates that anti-abortion groups worldwide are less likely to be as violent as those in the United States. Only in the States do you hear of abortion clinics being bombed, she said.

But just in case, the ship intends to move around the various "come aboard" spots, as Gomperts prefers to call them, for the patients. The location of the pickup points will be kept secret.

But there is also concern that having such a procedure on water will mean the patient is subject to more health risks than if the procedure took place on land.

However, a spokeswoman for Britain's Family Planning Association said that while it certainly would be preferable to have such a procedure on land, if the ship followed proper hygiene techniques it would be a preferred alternative in countries where abortion is just not an option.

"I don't see why there should be any more complications than usual, given it is set up correctly," the FPA's Toni Belfield told ABCNEWS.com.

However, she said the FPA was not approving or disapproving of the concept of a floating abortion clinic, just working as an advocate on behalf of women's health.

Catholic Backlash

But while other public health groups may follow FPA's neutral stance, the "abortion ship" is facing a backlash even before its launch.

The country of Malta, a Mediterranean island and overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country, has already reacted with outrage to advance publicity. Abortion is illegal in Malta and is regarded as murder. Several newspapers have said deputy prime minister and social policy minister, Lawrence Gonzi, is ready to prosecute anyone who collaborates with Gomperts and Women on Waves.

"Anyone who is in breach of Maltese law, must understand that he or she will have to face the consequences of that breach," his office said in a statement. "At the end of the day, it is our courts who will judge whether someone has breached the law, and if so, what the consequences will be."

Poland and Ireland join Malta as European countries where abortion is still illegal. However, Women on Waves says it is Third World countries, throughout South America, Africa and Asia, that have the most need for a floating abortion clinic.

Women on Waves will not just be using the ship to assist with terminating pregnancies. Besides providing offshore abortions, the ship will also distribute contraceptives, conduct workshops on reproductive health, provide training for abortionists, and facilitate awareness and advocacy campaigns while in port.

But despite these educational and preventative measures, the ship's offshore activities have created the most concern.

Anti-abortion groups have expressed outrage. According to Josephine Quintavalle, spokeswoman for Britain's Comment on Reproductive Ethics, "It is death on the high seas. What a dreadful thought."

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