Pro-choice activists sail into Dublin docks aboard the controversial pro-abortion Dutch ship Aurora on June 14, 2001. Although the trawler is equipped to carry out abortions, the purpose of its visit to Ireland is to fuel debate on the need for Irish legislation to provide women with choice.
Abortion is perhaps the last taboo in Irish society. The question of abortion still has the power to unleash emotive arguments among both pro-life and pro-choice camps. The arrival of the Aurora thrusts the issue back into the frontline of public debate.
The 1990s are a time of spectacular change in the Republic of Ireland, where the will of the Roman Catholic church traditionally has had a direct influence on family life. Contraception became widely available and a referendum overturned the constitutional bar on divorce. But abortion on Irish soil remains outlawed in all but the most extreme circumstances. As it stands, a woman is only entitled to have her pregnancy terminated if otherwise she is likely to commit suicide. Pro-choice campaigners call the law hypocritical and point to the fact that every year an estimated 6,300 women travel across the Irish Sea to Great Britain, where they pay up to £1,000 to have the procedure done privately.
The 35-metre ship, a cannibalised Dutch deep-sea fishing boat, is chartered by the feminist action group Women on Waves, with the aim of carrying out abortions on board. A shipping container which has been converted into an abortion clinic, complete with gynaecological chair, has been welded to the deck of the Aurora. The mobile clinic is capable of carrying out 20 operations a day.
Originally, the ship had planned to sail 12 miles out into international waters, where it would carry out the terminations. Once there, doctors on board would also be able to distribute the RU486 abortion pill. But a question mark hangs over the mission after it is revealed that Dutch authorities did not issue the floating clinic with the appropriate paperwork that would allow it to carry out abortions.
While the Aurora‘s voyage makes news beyond Irish shores, reaction among pro-life campaigners in Ireland is mostly muted. Many feel that by keeping quiet they will starve the mission of publicity. But some organisations, such as Human Life International Ireland (HLII), do speak out. HLII has plans to launch what it calls a “Life” boat to shadow the Aurora. Spokesman for the group, David Walshe, says the aim is not to protest but to act as “a non-confrontational witness to the sanctity of human life.”
Until 1983, abortion is outlawed in Ireland under a 19th Century act instituted during British rule. In 1983 a constitutional amendment is enacted that outlaws abortion in all circumstances. But in 1992 the Supreme Court of Ireland pronounces that if a woman were suicidal she would be entitled to a termination. The law has remained largely unchanged since then and the Irish government shows no appetite for tackling the issue head-on.
(From: “Abortion ship in stormy waters,” BBC News Online, June 14, 2001)