DUBLIN - A Dutch ship claiming to offer abortions at sea is expected to dock early Friday in Dublin, to the fury of pro-life groups in the predominantly Roman Catholic country where the practice is illegal.
Its imminent arrival has sparked controversy for its pro-choice mission and a furious debate over the ethics and legality of performing abortions on what is effectively a floating clinic.
The Aurora, chartered by the Amsterdam-based Women on Waves foundation, was due to have arrived Thursday but was held up by bad weather.
Its latest scheduled arrival is 1:00 am (0000 GMT) Friday, spokeswoman Joke van Kampen told AFP.
Abortion is illegal in Ireland except in exceptional circumstances such as rape or when the life of the mother is at risk, but demand is high.
The Dutch ship Sea Change leaves the port of Scheveningen, The Netherlands Monday, June 11, 2001, for Dublin, Ireland, carrying on its deck a shipping container outfitted with medical facilities to perform abortions. The ship, leased by the group Women on Waves, says it is offering abortions to women outside the territorial limits of Ireland, where abortions are illegal. But the group said it did not plan to conduct surgical abortions during the Ireland trip, only administer medication to induce miscarriages. (AP Photo/ Fred Libochant)
Every year, according to pro-abortion groups, at least 6,000 women go from Ireland to England for terminations.
The vessel, which left the Dutch port of Scheveningen on Monday, intends to spend up to two weeks in and around Ireland.
Anchored in Dublin, its main role would be to offer counselling and advice on contraception. To dispense the abortion pill, it would sail into international waters.
"That's what we will do if we need to, go out into international waters and sail back," van Kampen said.
Women on Waves says that at sea, pregnancies less than seven weeks old can be treated with medication (mifepristone and misoprostol).
However, doubts have been raised in the Netherlands about the legality.
The 40-metre (130-foot) vessel carries a shipping container which has been fitted out as an operating theatre complete with waiting room.
The Aurora, which is sailing under the flag of the Netherlands, is subject to Dutch law, even in international waters, meaning women on board are subject to a compulsory five-day wait before the procedure can be performed.
Moreover, Dutch authorities have not yet given the foundation a license to perform abortions.
To get a licence, health inspectors have to approve the location where the procedures are to take place, a process which can take months.
Van Kampen said that would happen when they returned to the Netherlands as the clinic had only just been built.
"We are saying we are confident that we are operating completely within the borders of the Dutch law," she added.
She said they would respect the five-day period, but would not explicitly confirm or deny if doctors would dispense the abortion pill.
"That is a matter of confidentiality between the doctor and the clients."
If they sailed into international waters, it would be only for a few hours at a time, although they could repeat the process several times "depending on what sort of clients we are getting and how we can arrange that."
Irish pro-life groups are furious at what they call a "publicity stunt."
Geraldine Martin, of the Pro-Life Campaign group in Ireland, condemned the organisers' "hysterical approach."
"They appear to be very much in denial of the emotion, harm and heartbreak endured by women following abortions. The other thing they appear very much in denial of is the whole humanity of the child," she told BBC radio.
She accused Women on Waves of exploiting the turmoil of women with unwanted pregnancies to achieve publicity.
The organisation was set up two years ago by Dutch doctor Rebecca Gomperts in response to what she says is the "medical calamity" of 20 million abortions worldwide annually resulting in the deaths of 70,000 women.
Gomperts "comes across as a woman who needs a bit of counselling," Maurice Colgan of Pro-Life Campaign said. He thought the foundation would probably shy away from offering abortions.
"She's coming here for a cup of tea," he said of Gomperts.
"She can't do anything else. She told the Dutch authorities that she would comply with their legislation and would not give any abortion pills to anyone over here."
Copyright © 2001 AFP