Dutch abortion group makes waves
Dutch abortion counselling group Women on Waves found themselves in choppy waters last week as Moroccan officials prevented them from entering the port of Smir, and naval vessels later escorted the ship boat from Moroccan waters.
It was the group’s first trip to a Muslim country.
Founded in 1999, Women on Waves is a Dutch organization that travels by ship to countries across the globe to give women information on abortion and offer medical assistance, rather than performing medical procedures.
Their aim, they say, is to provide information about safe methods of abortion and provide medical care and counselling to women who may not otherwise have access to such services.
Group founder Rebecca Gomperts, who had flown to Morocco ahead of the ship’s arrival, was also met with hostility on Thursday, as protesters waved banners and chanted ‘assassin’ and ‘terrorist’ as she tried to hand out fliers on abortion to the crowd.
Abortion is illegal in most cases in Morocco. Moroccan law provides allowances when the mother’s life, physical or mental health is at risk, but offers no such exceptions in the case of rape or incest.
It is also illegal to provide medical advice and information about abortion.
The Moroccan health ministry said that the ship could not operate on its territory, and requested the relevant authorities to escort it from its waters even though Alternative Movement for Individual Freedoms (MALI), a local women’s rights organization seeking the legalization of abortion, invited Women on Waves to Morocco.
The ship initially sailed around the harbour displaying banners which advertised the group’s abortion information helpline.
However, a Women on Waves member later said that this was a second vessel, the first ship having already docked in the harbour several days previously, in anticipation of officials blocking the port to their entry.
The second vessel also left the harbour.
According to the Moroccan Association of the Fight Against Clandestine Abortion (AMLAC) hundreds of abortions take place every day in Morocco with many being carried out unsafely.
Marlies Schellekens, a doctor from Women on Waves said, ‘In Morocco, between 600 and 800 abortions are done every day, but only about 250 are done by doctors, so they are safer, while the rest are taking risks.’
Illegal abortions are often dangerous and unregulated, carried out in underground clinics and putting women’s lives at risk.
In the absence of abortion as an option for Moroccan women with unwanted pregnancies, they are left with adoption as the sole option, given the stigma associated with pre-marital sex.
Women on Waves provides counseling and abortion medication on their ship outside the territorial waters of the countries that outlaw the procedure.
The group has previously caused controversy when they visited the traditionally Catholic countries of Spain, Portugal and Ireland, sparking protests from anti-abortion campaigners.
Back in Morocco, the debate seems set to continue. Many still oppose the legalisation of abortion.
But for Rebecca Gomperts and Women on Waves, it’s about a woman’s choice, it’s about safety and it’s about social justice.
And until these issues are on the political agenda, the journey for Moroccan women continues.