Abortion ship makes waves

in News · 04-09-2004 00:00:00 · 0 Comments

National news coverage in Portugal the past week has been solely focused on developments involving the so-called abortion ship, that has been anchored off the Portuguese coastline since last Sunday. The arrival of “Borndiep”, has sparked a nationwide debate on the issue, with both the President and Prime Minister making public interventions to explain their positions. At the time of going to press the ship was still docked off the port city of Figueira da Foz, with two naval ships patrolling and blocking its access into Portuguese waters.

The ship’s presence this week resulted in the President calling on the government to explain its controversial procedures that have followed its arrival.
The government has barred the Dutch registered ship, equipped with an abortion clinic, from entering national waters.
Shortly before President Sampaio made his position public, Defence Minister Paulo Portas, who originally issued the ban against the ship, said, “the issue is now closed.”
But Sampaio said he would seek "complete information" from the government, in his capacity of Commander-in-Chief of Portugal's armed forces, on its decision to ban the boat from visiting Figueira da Foz.
The Portuguese leader, a Socialist, said he currently had no disagreement with the decision of the rightist coalition government’s prevention of the ship’s visit to Portugal, but noted the issue was clouded by legal problems.
Meanwhile, Women on Waves, the foundation manning the ship, have described Lisbon’s action as illegal, as do leftist opposition parties in Portugal.
The floating abortion clinic had planned to stay in Portugal for a fortnight and distribute termination pills to women with unwanted pregnancies of under six weeks.
The Dutch ship, which has already sparked controversy by visiting the Catholic nations of Poland and Ireland, was invited to visit Portugal by a number of women’s rights organisations and pro-abortion groups.
Opinion polls show that the majority of Portuguese favour a relaxing of their country’s restrictive abortion legislation.
The ruling Social Democratic Party blocked opposition proposals earlier this year to widen access to abortion and has given its junior coalition partner, the Popular Party, assurances it will not alter abortion laws or order a referendum on the matter before its mandate ends in 2006.
Several Portuguese MEP’s have meanwhile said a letter had been sent to the President of the European Parliament seeking help in getting the ban on the Dutch ship lifted. A meeting to discuss the matter will be taking place in Strasbourg between September 13 and 16.
However, a request to the Dutch EU presidency to press the Lisbon authorities to allow the vessel to visit Portuguese ports, as it had originally planned, appears to have failed, as they have since indicated they would not be intervening in the matter.
In a statement to The Portugal News, Women on Waves have singled out Paulo Portas for criticism: “Women on Waves understands that the minister of defence has the obligation to protect his country, but he can and should not prevent a democratic and legal initiative taking place. Women’s rights are not a threat to national security.”
Furthermore, the foundation explains it “would like to declare that it all its activities on Portuguese territory will comply with all Portuguese laws”, adding “Paulo Portas does not seem to want to hear that the ship has and never had any intention to distribute any medicines within Portugal. Women on Waves is not inciting to any crime in Portugal, it is only providing scientific information on its website.”
Women on Waves further argue that “the United Nations Convention of the Laws of the Sea and the European Conventions, state that ships have the right to free entry unless they are a danger to the security of the state and they guarantee the right to free travel between member states. Portugal cannot ban a ship that is not doing any illegal activities.”
Paulo Portas had earlier claimed the ship had been prohibited from entering Portugal’s waters to "protect the application of Portuguese law".
If Portugal allowed the ship to enter the harbour, "tomorrow, no port authority would have the power to combat illegal fishing, drugs trafficking or illegal immigration, argued Portas.
"Our territorial waters are not a jungle", he said.
But contrary to Portas’ desire, the case appears to be far from “closed”.
Left Bloc leader Francisco Louça, speaking live on television following a visit to Borndiep, exclaimed: “The government has used two arguments – public health and national safety. National safety? They are three men and three women on a small ship”.
Regarding public health, Louça hit out: “Worse than the government not complying with European legislation, is that they are non-compliant through the use of lies. I don’t know if the Defence Ministry is the competent health authority, but there is no epidemic on board. There are no problems whatsoever”.
The debate has not been limited to Portuguese shores alone. At a UN meeting in London for Population Affairs and Development, a number of politicians and activists called on the Portuguese government to provide its women citizens with access “to safe abortions”.
Meanwhile, the Prime Minister finally decided to make his position public this week, after being taunted for several days by opposition parties.
According to Pedro Santana Lopes, “these ladies (Women on Waves) are welcome anywhere in Portugal - if they are here to debate” the issue of abortion.
But regarding the prohibition of the ship’s entry, Santana Lopes said “the law has to be complied with, and the Defence Minister has taken the measures deemed appropriate by the chain of command”.
On the issue of abortion, the Prime Minister explained the matter is “under constant evaluation”.
“I am not dogmatic and my party does not even have an official position on the issue”, he explained, avoiding questions on what he thought of the current legislation.
“I am not saying whether it is good or bad. It is, however, a law that a prime minister has to ensure is respected”, concluded Pedro Santana Lopes.

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