DUBLIN, June 15 (AFP) - Dutch campaigners launched a controversial mission Friday promoting the right of women to have abortions in Ireland, but appeared to back down on plans to offer pregnancy terminations at sea. They docked in Dublin late Thursday on a chartered ship specially equipped to carry out on-board abortions, infuriating pro-life groups in Ireland where the practice is illegal. But having initially hinted they would sidestep Irish law by dispensing the so-called abortion pill in international waters, they appeared Friday to have backed down under legal pressure. "Unfortunately, we had hoped that the Dutch crew on the ship would be able to offer the abortion pill," said Ivana Bacik, spokeswoman in Ireland for the Women on Waves foundation which chartered the vessel, the Aurora. However, they had been "so overwhelmed" by the demand from Irish women that the ship could not have accommodated them all, she told state RTE radio. Secondly, "because there have been issues in Dutch law that have arisen, it won't, in fact, be possible to offer either the (abortion pill) or, of course, surgical abortion." The group had always insisted it never planned to offer surgical abortion, although the vessel is equipped to do so.
Bacik said their "utmost priority" was the health and safety of Irish women and "that we would remain under Dutch and Irish law where appropriate." Irish law makes abortion illegal except in exceptional circumstances, when the life of the mother is in danger. Dutch law applies when the boat sails in international waters and is flying the Dutch flag. Women on Waves has admitted it does not have the licence needed from Dutch authorities to be allowed to carry out abortions, either surgically or through the pill. Instead, the group says its main purpose is to raise awareness of the issue of abortion in Ireland and promote the pro-choice cause. It will also offer counselling and contraception advice while it is docked in Dublin and the southern port of Cork over the next two weeks. Pro-life groups in Ireland are furious at what they have billed a publicity stunt. The Human Life International in Ireland group was responding to the ship's arrival by mounting "Operation Babe Watch." Spokesman David Walshe said it was sending a rival vessel to Dublin port to offer women counselling and practical support in their pregnancy, and to stage a "peaceful, prayerful witness." It is also calling for a "sustained prayer rota" in churches for every day the boat stays in Ireland.
The Pro-Life Campaign group said it did not want to give extra publicity to the vessel's cause with a protest, although spokesman John Smyth condemned the "hysterical approach" of Women on Waves.