Cast Adrift

There’s just one problem with the much-publicized floating abortion clinic docked off Ireland: It won’t be providing any abortions.

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When the Aurora sailed into the port of Dublin last week, a flurry of international headlines greeted the ship’s arrival: To dramatize the plight of women in a country that outlaws abortions, a group of doctors and activists had turned the vessel into a floating abortion clinic. Equipped with a fully functional operating room, supplies of the abortion drug RU-486, and an all-female staff from the group Women on Waves, the ship was to transport pregnant women into international waters to offer services not available on Irish soil. (MotherJones.com covered the project’s early stages last year.)

There was just one thing missing: As a result of what Women on Waves terms a “legal hiccup,” the Aurora didn’t have a license to actually perform abortions. The group had failed to receive full approval for its floating clinic — which flies a Dutch flag and is subject to Dutch jurisdiction — from the Netherlands’ health inspection services.

The organization says it expects to receive that clearance within 14 days, but by then the boat is scheduled to be back in Holland. Asked why the trip was not delayed until licensing was complete, Women on Waves spokeswoman Joke van Kampen says, “When you start something this bold, you have no framework to go on. The Dutch government had no categories defining a group like ours. We had to ask the government to clarify what our rights were and this process unfortunately took longer than we anticipated.”

Women on Waves has been quick to announce that it is “seriously considering” making a second trip to Ireland. But the ship’s flawed debut constituted “a huge problem,” concedes Julie Bernstein, a spokeswoman for the Washington, D.C.-based Feminist Majority Foundation, which is handling security for Women on Waves.

“Hordes of women arrived and had to be turned away,” Bernstein says. “One woman claimed she had been raped and no one would help her. But this just underscores the problem of receiving family planning services in Ireland.”

The snag led some Irish prolife groups to dismiss the Aurora’s arrival as nothing more than a media stunt. But van Kampen says the organization’s other activities — counseling services, a helpline, a film festival and a conference — will stimulate discussion in a country where thousands of women travel abroad each year to get abortions. Meanwhile, for those who can’t afford the $150 airfare from Dublin to London, or the roughly $450 for an abortion in the UK, the wait continues.

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