Andrew Osborn








Sailing close to the wind, 20th June 2003 13:28

A floating Dutch abortion clinic run by a former Greenpeace activist is about to ignite a storm of protest in Poland, writes Andrew Osborn

They have already taken on the Irish Catholic church, but this time they are targeting the country which gave the world Pope John Paul II - Poland.

A large Dutch-registered yacht will slip into the northern Polish port of Wladyslawowo tomorrow with a shipping container-cum-mobile abortion clinic lashed to its deck.

The crew will not be amateur sailors but doctors, nurses and trauma counsellors who will seek to circumvent restrictive Polish abortion law and offer free abortion pills, contraception and advice to interested Polish women.

The reaction is likely to be explosive. When the group - who call themselves Women on Waves - sailed to Ireland in 2001 the anti-abortion movement and the country's conservative religious establishment saw red, and now Polish pro-life groups are said to be already gearing up for their arrival. Abortion in Poland is only permitted as a last resort - if a woman has been raped, if the foetus is deformed, or if the woman would die without the operation.

The converted shipping container used by the group as a treatment room will seek to give Polish women more choices - albeit briefly - and can justifiably lay claim to be the world's first floating abortion clinic.

However the group is not authorised to perform surgical abortions. They tried and failed to do just that in Ireland but failed to get the necessary paperwork from the Dutch government, and so have to content themselves with distributing the RU486 abortion pill instead.

Not that they are in the least bit deterred, and their modus operandi is ingenious.

The Amsterdam-based group says that Dutch law applies on a Dutch boat provided it is in international waters and nobody has so far challenged them. The group therefore plans to pick up "patients" in Wladyslawowo, which is near Gdansk, and then sail out into the Baltic Sea and drop anchor 12 miles off the coast where Dutch law will take effect.

They will make several such trips over the course of two weeks.

Telephone hotlines for interested women opened today, but the group says it has already been approached by various women who have heard rumours about the scheme in Poland. "Under current (Polish) law very few women get abortions. There are 200,000 illegal abortions performed in the country every year," Jeannette Kruseman, a spokeswoman for Women on Waves told Guardian Unlimited.

"It is very restrictive and due to bureaucratic chaos it's very hard to get one," she said. But she admits that their venture is unlikely to be plain sailing.

"You need a lot of guts to come aboard, and we know that the pro-life opposition is gearing up. We are expecting demonstrations."

Bert Dorenbos of the Dutch anti-abortion group, Cry for Life, believes that the voyage is sheer folly.

"In the past, the Dutch have been missionaries for good but now we are missionaries for evil. I hope that the Dutch government will speak out strongly against this," he said. The trip, he believes, is part of a concerted campaign to persuade eastern European countries to embrace western European "pro-choice" mores ahead of their joining the EU next year. And he claims that it will turn out to be an own-goal.

"This boat is helping the pro-life lobby," he says. "It is harming the pro-choice case, not helping it."

However, Women on Waves - the brainchild of a Dutch doctor, Rebecca Gomperts - is convinced it is in the right.

The idea for a "seagoing women's health clinic" came to her when she was working as a doctor on the Rainbow Warrior, the Greenpeace boat sunk by the French secret service during an anti-nuclear protest in 1985, and she has no regrets.

"Making abortion illegal does not reduce the number of abortions," she argues. "It only means that it is done illegally, unsafely and at a very high price, financially as well as physically."

"As long as the issue of unwanted pregnancies and abortions is surrounded by taboos, silence and shame, laws will not change and neither will the problems of women with unwanted pregnancies," she says. "As a result of backstreet abortions a woman dies unnecessarily every five minutes."