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Last Updated: Monday, 7 July, 2003, 11:51 GMT 12:51 UK
On board Poland's abortion ship

By Tristana Moore
BBC, Wladyslawowo

We arrived at the port of Wladyslawowo in the afternoon. It had been raining all day. Apart from a few fishermen, the port was deserted.

We asked the harbour master where the Langenort ship was moored.

The Langenort had not received permission to dock and could still be asked to leave
"I don't know what you're talking about," one man said. His brusque reply caught my translator off guard. "You know, the women, the feminists..." he said.

"Ah yes, they're over there," the man replied, pointing outside. He had blue eyes which exuded an air of utter indifference.

We started walking along the quayside.

A group of men muttered something as we passed. I asked my translator what they had said.

Services provided
In port:
Pregnancy tests
General info
Non-surgical abortions

Apparently, they'd asked us if we were going to film the "group of gays" in the "foreign ship".

Wladyslawowo is a small Baltic fishing port - and the presence of the Langenort, the world's first floating abortion clinic, has outraged many Poles.

Perhaps the most irritating thing for local people is the fact that the crew of the ship is female, bar one male engineer, that is.

Undeterred by protesters who hurled abuse at them when the ship first arrived, the Dutch crew are united in their belief that women should have the right to choose whether to end their pregnancies.

"We've been intimidated. The main culprits are the right-wing League of Polish Families," said Rebecca Gomperts, the doctor who created Women on Waves.

Women are desperate here. You can't imagine how a woman feels when she has an unwanted pregnancy
Rebecca Gomperts
Women on Waves founder
"They've thrown eggs at us and groups of men have followed us when we walk around the town. We've had to hire security guards here at the ship and at the house where we're staying."

The Langenort - a tug-boat from Rostock, in Eastern Germany, is now a Dutch-registered vessel.

It offers free abortions to women who are in the first month-and-a-half of their pregnancy.

The campaigners say they have the permission of the Dutch Health Ministry to offer the services. They argue that Dutch law applies on a Dutch ship if it is in international waters.

I believe the Roman Catholic Church exerts too much influence in Poland
Wanda Nowicka
Polish campaigner
The doctors examine the women on board the boat and then administer the abortion-inducing drug, RU-486, before taking them back.

In all, the ship has travelled out into international waters on three separate occasions. But, for legal reasons, the campaigners are reluctant to reveal any details.

Illegal abortions

"What I can tell you," Rebecca Gomperts says, "is that we've had more than 200 telephone calls from the public. Women are desperate here. You can't imagine how a woman feels when she has an unwanted pregnancy. She doesn't want the child and she feels so lonely. It's very moving - and sad when you talk to these women."

She glances at the floor - her voice trails off. For a second, she looks as if she is going to cry.

Anti-abortion protesters hold a small symbolic coffin with the name of the Langenort abortion-right ship
Protesters are angry at the Langenort's presence
Estimates suggest that around 200,000 illegal abortions are carried out in Poland each year.

Under the current law, a pregnancy can be terminated only if the mother's life is in danger, if she was raped, or the embryo has grave defects. Doctors can face up to three years in prison if they are caught performing illegal abortions.

Wanda Nowicka invited the Dutch abortion campaigners to Poland. Since speaking out on behalf of Polish women, she says she has received several death threats.

"I don't know who's responsible, but I don't think it helps that we live in such a repressive society," she says.

I think it's a good idea that the 'Women on Waves' have come to Poland. They are brave people.
Olka, 20
"I believe the Roman Catholic Church exerts too much influence in Poland. All I can hope for is that when we join the European Union, we become a more secular society."

For many Polish women who seek an abortion, the only solution is to go to a private clinic or leave Poland altogether. Olka is 20 years old. She was 19 and a student when she got pregnant.

"I was about to sit my exams. I wasn't ready to have a baby," she told us.

"I answered an advert in a newspaper and found a doctor. I had to pay a lot of money for the abortion. I think it's a good idea that the 'Women on Waves' have come to Poland. They are brave people. More women feel confident about discussing abortion now."

The BBC's Tristana Moore
"Restricting abortion hasn't eliminated it in Poland"

No abortions on 'abortion ship'
15 Jun 01  |  Europe
Europe's terms for terminations
02 Jun 02  |  Europe

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