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Thursday, 14 June, 2001, 19:36 GMT 20:36 UK
Abortion ship in stormy waters
The Aurora
The Aurora arrives in Dublin docks
As pro-choice activists sail into Dublin docks aboard a floating abortion clinic, BBC News Online's Jonathan Duffy looks at the controversial background to the trip.

It 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.

Now the arrival of a floating abortion clinic into Dublin docks has thrust the issue back into the frontline of public debate.

The 1990s were a time of spectacular change in the Republic of Ireland, where the will of the Roman Catholic church traditionally had a direct influence on family life.

The fact that it is illegal does not make abortion any less Irish

Tony O'Brien, IFPA
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 Britain, where they pay up to 1,000 to have the procedure done privately.

Floating clinic

The arrival of the 450-ton Aurora vessel, which sailed into Dublin on Thursday night, has landed the abortion debate back in the headlines.

The 35-metre ship, a cannibalised Dutch deep-sea fishing boat, has been 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 been expected 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 was revealed that Dutch authorities did not issue the floating clinic with the appropriate paperwork that would allow it to carry out abortions, before it left port in Holland on Monday.

Silent opposition

Women on Waves spokesperson, Joke Van Kampen, refused to say on Thursday afternoon, whether doctors would press ahead with surgical or medical (using the RU486 pill) abortions.

While the Aurora's voyage has made news beyond Irish shores, reaction among pro-life campaigners in Ireland has been mostly muted. Many feel that by keeping quiet they will starve the mission of publicity.

Abortion clinic
The clinic has been set up in a shipping container
But some organisations, such as Human Life International Ireland (HLII), have spoken out. HLII is planning to launch what it calls a "Life" boat that will shadow the Aurora.

Spokesman for the group, David Walshe, said the aim was not to protest but to act as "a non-confrontational witness to the sanctity of human life".

"We are praying for the mercy of God and asking that the ship depart Irish shores as soon as possible," he said.

Until 1983, abortion was outlawed in Ireland under a 19th Century act instituted during British rule. In 1983 a constitutional amendment was enacted that outlawed abortion in all circumstances. But in 1992 the Supreme Court pronounced 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, despite recent efforts to the contrary.

An Irish problem

Four independent TDs (Irish MPs) who help prop up the minority government have sought to turn back the clock to 1983 by outlawing terminations in all circumstances - even if a woman is suicidal.

Confronted with these demands the government set about a public consultation. But there seems to have been little effort to go further.

Commentators say there is an anti-abortion mood in the country and while citizens have the right to travel to the UK for the procedure, there is no need to allow it on Irish soil.

The Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA) continues to campaign for a relaxation of the laws.

"Abortion is an Irish problem," says chief executive of the IFPA Tony O'Brien. "Irish women agonise over crisis pregnancies. The fact that it is illegal does not make abortion any less Irish."

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See also:

27 May 01 | Northern Ireland
Bishop calls for abortion referendum
16 May 01 | Americas
House backs Bush on abortion
05 Apr 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Ireland
30 Jun 99 | World population
Viewpoints: Population control
14 Jun 01 | Europe
Abortion ship heads for Dublin
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