Controversial ′Abortion Boat′ Reaches Polish Shores | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 27.06.2003
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Controversial 'Abortion Boat' Reaches Polish Shores

A Dutch abortion rights group left Poland -- where abortion is virtually banned -- for international waters on Thursday. Two doctors may help Polish women to terminate their pregnancies on board.


Womens groups are welcoming a Dutch abortion ship, but religious groups and government leaders are outraged by its presence.

The Langenort, a Dutch tugboat that has been dubbed by many as the "abortion ship," left the port of Wladyslawowo, Poland, on Thursday and headed for international waters, where doctors are planning to provide safe abortion services for Polish women who are banned by law from obtaining the procedures in their own country.

Outfitted with medicines, a gynecological treatment room and information on family planning and contraception, Women on Waves, as the pro-choice group behind the Langenort is called, arrived in Poland last weekend. The activists say they aim to draw attention to the problems of illegal abortions and offer women counseling.

The group is licensed by the Dutch Health Ministry to dispense the "abortion pill" RU-486. Though it may not do so in Poland, it may in the international waters some 12 miles (19 kilometers) off the Polish shore. The boat is also equipped with condoms, the "morning after pill" and the means to perform clinical abortions.

The ship left harbor carrying two doctors, eight crew members and as many as 20 women who were seeking abortions. But the organization that has brought the ship to Poland is also seeking to make a political statement.

"This is not a solution to the problem. Only the Polish government can help these women," Women on Waves founder Rebecca Gomperts told Deutsche Welle. "We can only make the problem visible."

Problems from the start

The Langenort has been faced with difficulties since it made its way to Poland.

The boat was met by angry protesters from the League of Polish Families (LPR), who hollered insults and threw stones and red paint at the ship when it pulled into Wladyslawowo on Sunday. It was soon visited by police and customs officials, who sealed the medication they found on board on Wednesday in order to prevent its distribution in Poland.

But the group will not be prosecuted if it breaks the seals in international waters.

There have been other problems, too. Before the boat was allowed to leave Polish waters again, Women on Waves had to pay a fine levied by the Wladyslawowo harbor master for entering the port without permission. Gomperts said the breach had been the result of a misunderstanding between the English-speaking captain and Polish-speaking harbor officials.

10 year anniversary

Gomperts said the activists were invited to Wladyslawowo by Polish women's organizations.

"That's the main reason [we came]," she explained. "But also because abortion was legal until ten years ago. We came for the ten year anniversary."

Protesters have managed to prevent Women on Waves from opening the ship to the public so far. But Gomperts said the group has received enthusiastic support from Poles. They plan to stay in or near Poland until July 5.

Shifting laws

Poland's abortion laws have changed numerous times since the fall of communism in 1989, depending on who controlled the government, which has been passed back and forth between conservatives and leftist communists.

Today, Poland has one of the strictest abortion laws in Europe -- second only to Ireland. Women may only terminate a pregnancy if it threatens their health, they have been raped or the fetus is damaged. Doctors who perform illegal abortions face up to three years in jail.

Polish Pope John Paul II, who determinedly opposes abortion, is widely viewed as the greatest moral authority in this Roman Catholic country.

Poland isn't the first country with restrictive family planning laws whose legal system the Dutch group has sought to circumvent to provide abortions.

Women on Waves first attracted attention in 2001, when the group sailed to Ireland in a similar undertaking. But they called off plans to distribute the "abortion pill" at the last minute because they still had not received a license from the Dutch Health Ministry.

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