(CNSNews.com) – European abortion activists were deciding on their next move Thursday, after Moroccan authorities prevented their floating abortion clinic from docking at a port on the country’s Mediterranean coast.
Morocco is the first Muslim country to be targeted by the controversial Dutch group, Women on Waves, which for the past 11 years has been sailing converted boats to predominantly Catholic countries where abortion is restricted, and then offering chemical abortions in nearby international waters.
Since the boat is registered in the Netherlands, it operates under Dutch law when in international waters – that is, beyond the 12-mile limit – and can therefore circumvent national abortion laws.
The group said Thursday a Moroccan navy vessel had escorted the boat out of the port at Smir, a tourist town southeast of the Strait of Gibraltar, following a police search shortly after its arrival.
A left-wing Dutch lawmaker had arrived at the harbor to meet the boat but police prevented her from going onboard, it said in a statement.
“There was an overwhelming amount of police and secret service, and although the authorities did not find anything incriminating, the ship was escorted from the harbor by the navy,” the group said.
“The ship will stay near Morocco, and Women on Waves will now strategize their next move.”
“Despite this obstacle and the presence of intensive Moroccan police security, Women on Waves will not allow this to prohibit dissemination about the availability of safe medical abortion for Moroccan women,” it said in a statement. “Women on Waves is currently working on [an] alternative strategy.”
The group said it had also launched a phone hotline to give Moroccan women information about contraception and how to access a “safe medical abortion.” It said most women in the country were unaware that the drug misoprostol was actually available in Morocco.
Used in conjunction with mifepristone (RU-486), misoprostol is reported to be more than 98 percent effective in destroying a baby in the early months of pregnancy. The World Health Organization in 2005 added the two drugs to its list of “essential medicines,” after lobbying by the International Planned Parenthood Federation and others.
Women on Waves says it was invited to Morocco by a women’s rights group, the Alternative Movement for Individual Freedoms, and wanted to offer medical abortions to women in the first six-and-a-half weeks of pregnancy.
“While wealthy women can afford safe abortion access, women of low socio-economic-status must often resort to unsafe methods that can result in morbidity and death,” it said. “Therefore, access to safe abortion is fundamentally an issue of social justice.”
Moroccan law outlaws abortion except when deemed necessary to save the life of the mother or safeguard her physical health. Spousal authorization is required. It also prohibits the dissemination of information on how to end a pregnancy. Citing government figures, Women on Waves says up to 800 abortions, most of them illegal, take place in Morocco every day.
Seven Moroccan pro-life groups met in Casablanca on Tuesday to discuss the issue, and called on the authorities to take steps to protect the unborn, including denying the Dutch boat permission to dock and carry out its “dirty operations.”
Al-Tajdid, the newspaper of the ruling Islamist party, quoted one critic, a representative of the country’s Scientific Council, as comparing the activists’ mission to “piracy” and a plot against women.
Dutch abortion doctor Rebecca Gomperts has faced frequent hurdles since she founded Women on Waves in 1999.
Before heading for Ireland on its first voyage in 2001, she failed to get a license to perform abortions. Despite claiming that it had been overwhelmed by the number of Irish women wanting them, the group was restricted to dispensing advice about pregnancy and contraception.
The following February, the Dutch health department stripped the group of its medical license, saying emergency facilities on board the ship were inadequate and that the boat’s mobility meant regular inspections could not be conducted.
Women on Waves challenged the decision, and some five months later – in one of the last actions of an outgoing liberal government – the then health minister agreed doctors on the boat could dispense RU-486.
In 2003 the ship sailed to the Polish Baltic Sea port of Wladyslawowo, where its 15-day visit was marked by widespread media coverage, angry protests, bureaucratic hurdles and legal challenges.
According to Women on Waves’ report on the trip, the boat was restricted to a less-accessible area of the port and Polish customs officials sealed all the drugs onboard. The group sailed into international waters with Polish women onboard three times. Each time staff broke the seals on the drugs cabinet, although the group for legal reasons refused to say afterwards what drugs it had dispensed.
Upon the ship’s return, customs officials counted the drugs and resealed the cabinet. Polish media reported that the number of abortion pills had dropped.
Despite the obstacles, Women in Waves suggested the visit had been successful in that it prompted unprecedented debate in Polish media.
The group initially hoped to carry out surgical abortions at sea and fitted out a clinic in a large container strapped to the deck. But in 2004 a Dutch court upheld a government ruling effectively prohibiting this, on the grounds that the boat must be within reach of a hospital in case of complications.
Undeterred, the group then headed for Portugal, but the Portuguese government prevented their boat from entering the country’s waters. It visited Spain in 2008, taking Spanish women to international waters and giving them abortion drugs. Spain liberalized its abortion laws two years later.