BOAT ON WAY The Borndiep set sail from Holland three weeks ago – it’s a journey of over a thousand miles from the Netherlands to the Portuguese holiday destination of Figueira da Foz. But this is no pleasure boat – on board is a cargo of RU-486 – the abortion pill. The crew is determined to enter Portuguese waters and pick up women who want an abortion. By taking them out to international waters they can get round Portugal’s de facto ban on abortion.

SYNC Desiree -
They’ve come to help us. And there are so many people who need it, who don’t have any money, like me. This is their last chance.

Set up Desiree -
This is the kind of woman the boat is coming to help. Desiree was 16 when she had a back street abortion through a midwife. Three years ago both were put on trial along with other patients, pharmacists and social workers – 43 in all. A lack of evidence meant that Desiree was acquitted but the nurse was sent to prison.

Desiree Regazzoni: When the public prosecutor asked for three years for every one of the 17 women, then I understood it wasn’t a joke but something serious and all of us became very worried.

Because the number of defendants was so high,the trial was held not in a court of law but here in these tennis courts in Maia in the North of Portugal. It was a case that re-ignited the debate on abortion with the anti abortionists claiming victory and the pro choice lobby saying it was a witch hunt.

Trials like Desiree’s have polarised Portuguese society. A referendum six years ago voted by the narrowest of margins against liberalising the law. Despite a low turnout, it provided the government with a mandate to prosecute women. Still an estimated 20,000 a year take the risk and have illegal abortions.

With the ship now 15 miles outside Portugal, the government wastes no time taking action.

The Minister of Defence faxes the crew refusing permission to enter national waters and sends naval vessels to keep an eye on them. Though the boat is licensed by Dutch authorities to administer the abortion pill, the Portuguese government claims the campaigners are acting illegally by inciting Portuguese women to break the law.

Back on Portuguese soil, Rebecca Gomperts , the Dutch doctor behind Women on Waves, waits for the boat to dock. She’s angry about the government’s decision.

Dr.Rebecca Gomperts Founder, Women on Waves: We are being treated like a threat to the Portuguese government this would also be a breach of fundamental human right to information.

The Portuguese women’s groups who invited the ship work out tactics. They’re already receiving calls from pregnant women who want to board the ship – IF it arrives.

Cristina Santos, Volunteer coordinator: These restrictive laws have been damaging poor women not rich women because Portuguese women with money go to England or Spain to have an abortion and they can do it easily.

Not everyone is in favour of the boat coming in with its cargo of abortion pills. Portugal is a staunchly Catholic country, and the pro-life movement is relieved that the government has turned the boat away.

Jose Carvalho, President Pro-Life Federation: I think the Portuguese government has been handling the situation very well because objectively the entering of the abortion boat into Portugal is a violation of our law, an affront and a provocation to the Portuguese people.

I/V cont -
I don’t want to send women to jail but I want to be sure that no one kills an innocent baby.

In an attempt to keep their campaign going despite the ban, Women on Waves decide to take the press and sympathetic politicians out to the Borndiep.

Cristina: We are free citizens from Porugal and from the European union and we want to go there to visit the crew

Francisco Louca: I’m an MP . I’m involved for a long time in this battle to change the mediaeval law in Portugal

Boat trip -
It’s a six hour round trip on a turbulent sea. Portugal is proving a much rougher ride than Women on Waves experienced on previous trips to Ireland and Poland.

Boat at sea -
The sea is rough. Any thoughts of ferrying women out to the boat are out of question. They can’t even get on themselves.

Boat at sea twilight -
So back they go.

Harbour -
At the harbour they’re met by a crowd of supporters. ‘Women on trial is a national disgrace’, they shout.

But not everyone at the quayside is enchanted by the campaigners.

Woman with pink collar: I can’t say I’m for something if I’m against it.

Grey: You have your opinion against – I respect my own decision for abortion.

Pink: I respect other’s decisions but I’m really sorry that some mothers throw their babies in the garbage.

Protestors at harbour -
Sceptics might suspect this is all feminist propaganda.

Lisette’s mother‘s housse -
But back street abortion is a common and deadly practice in Portugal. The government’ s own figures show that 11,000 women are hospitalised and five die from it every year. This woman’s daughter was one of them.

Photograph -
37 year old mother of three, Lisette, tried to end her pregnancy using a bleaching agent.

Anabela Moreira, Sister, Julia Sardiva, Mother -
Sister: They removed all her insides because she was completely burned. That was on a Friday. On the Saturday morning she went into a deep coma and she died 8 days later.

Mum: I was going crazy. I had no idea what was going on. For me it was a very big sorrow, very big.

Day 4 of the campaign and at the house which acts as headquarters the volunteers are getting more calls from pregnant women who have heard about the ship and want to use its services.

Cecilia Vieira Da Costa, a Volunteer: The most typical case we have is of women of are between 30 and 40 who have several children and don’t have money to have another annd want to have an abortion. We have several cases like that

But the volunteers can offer no abortions at sea while the ship remains stuck in a legal stand off with the government. Dr Gomperts, makes another press trip. Even her request for the ship to be allowed to refuel in Portugal has been refused. She believes the government has gone beyond its powers.

Dr.Rebecca Gomperts, Women on Waves: What laws are we breaking at this moment for example? We’re not and even if we come in here we are not distributing any illegal mmedices, we are not doing any medical interventions here. The idea of this project is that it is according to every law because here we only give information and education. When we go into international waters we fall under Dutch law and we can provide the abortion pill to women that have missed with early pregnancies.

Five days after the government bans the boat, the volunteers take their campaign to the capital. They gather outside the Prime Minister’s residence in Lisbon to hand in a petition demanding the ban be overturned.

At the same time, after a meeting with the President, Prime Minister Lopes announces that although the government is happy to debate abortion, it will not budge from its decision.

Pedro Santana Lopes, Prime Minister: Did you discuss the issue of the abortion ship with the president just now? Our government and the parties that support the coalition will contribute to assure that all the debates can take place here in Portugal. We are in a free country. But So the decision has been taken not to allow the ship to land.Thank you very much.

Desiree - If politicians don’t want abortions done here, and they know the situation is getting more and more difficult with no jobs, and mothers getting younger and younger, at least they could have let the boat come in here.

Boat sails away -
Tonight after two weeks stuck at sea, the abortion ship is heading home. Not a single Portuguese woman has had access to its cargo of abortion pills. The waters are calm but the forecast is more turbulent. On Tuesday Women on Waves is challenging the legality of the government’s decision in the European Commission.

TOTAL DUR 9’ 16”

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