'There's no place for a society engaged with the dignity of a person, if you don't protect the lives of those who are most defenceless, whatever their age or stage of development.' Benigno Blanco's words are loud and clear. As vice president and spokesperson for the Spanish Forum for the Family, a confederation of more than 5, 000 associations, he clarifies the philosophy of the anti-abortion movement, Pro-Life.
The movement's roots are in the US. In 1973, the Supreme Court listed abortion as a constitutional right. Since then, many organisations have fought tooth and nail to defend the respect for life since the moment of conception. 'Pro-life can count on the support of the Catholic Church and American foundations. Money mobalises people,' explains Rebecca Gomperts, a founding doctor of the Dutch-based campaign group, Women on Waves, which uses a travelling ship to provide abortion services for those who are otherwise denied them.
Whilst many of these associations call themselves non-denominational, their arguments are similar to many religions which respect the defence of life. 'Respect for life is a universal value shared by everyone who is looking for a common good, it's not only a value exclusive to religion. Our group is happy with all the positions that are defended in the majority of the different religions, in particular the Catholic Church and the evangelical Protestants,' explains Paul Ginoux Defermon, from the French pro-life movement 30anscasuffit (literally 'Thirty Years is Enough!'), a group of ten associations with 100, 000 members.
Restrictive Poles and Portugese
The European abortion situation depends on the legislation of each individual country. For the pro-life associations, it is not particularly fundamental to have a common legislation. 'Every country should have a rigid policy prohibiting abortion, together with a just policy welcoming life,' explains Ginoux Defermon. Rebecca Gompert also finds it unnecessary to standardise one common European law, but says that 'each of the 27 countries in the Union, in one way or another, should legalise abortion.'
During the communist period, Poland's abortion law was liberal, and supplied virtually on demand. Since 1993 however, the law was restricted, backed up by the church. Pawel Wosick, the president of the Polish Federation of Pro-Life Movements, was not surprised at the growth of this movement in Poland since the new law was passed. 'The Public Opinion Research Centre (CBOS), one of the most prominent research centres in Poland, revealed in 1997 that 65% of Poles were for abortion, as opposed to the 44% who said the same thing in 2006.'
On February 11, a referendum on legalising abortion will take place in Portugal. 'We expect that Portugese voters won't make the same mistake as the French, who legalised abortion in 1974,' says Ginoux Defermon. She adds that: 'In Spain, since 1975, the number of abortions has risen from 60, 000 to 220, 000 in just half a year.' On the other hand, the president of the Polish Federation says: 'The referenda on the right to live are a misunderstanding. The basic right to live cannot be subject to a vote or what the majority say.'
Harden the laws, but it's maybe not the way to deal with the increase of unwanted pregnancies. In countries with the harshest restrictions, there is the risk of illegal abortions or of women travelling to other countries where it is easier to have an abortion. 'Sometimes it doesn't matter if the abortion law is strict, because women can just up and leave for somewhere where it is legal,' explains Pawel Wosicki. He adds that: 'Abortion tourism is sad, with medical clinics only performing abortion procedures for the money.'
Choose ma or foetus
'The right of the mother to live is more important that the right of the foetus to live,' explains the pro-life founder of Women on waves. For her, the health of the mother is vital. 'Why do we need to oblige a woman to have a child if she can't?' she asks. The president of the Spanish Forum of the Family doesn't agree. 'It's got nothing to do with the question of abortion, with an eventual right for women to decide about their own bodies. It's about whether a mother has the right to ends her child's life.'
40-year-old Gloria had an abortion in 1991. 'Abortion is not a pleasure. It's a decision. One which every woman makes for whatever her reasons. Perhaps, the pro-life movement needs to stop blaming women, and direct their efforts in providing good sexual education or facilities which actually help women raise those fetuses they are considering aborting because of economic hardship. Maybe like this, things can change.'
Women on Waves: lifebuoy or media cruise?
Abortion is the most commonly practised operation in the world after cataract surgery - a reality which the media-driven Dutch NGO ‘Women on Waves’, founded in 1999, denies.
What does ‘Women on waves’ do?
Nearly 20, 000 abortions take place every year in Portugal, a quarter of which go wrong. In the territorial waters of countries where abortion is banned, the medical team onboard the ‘Women on Waves’ ship, the ‘Borndiep’, can carry out abortions within six weeks of pregnancy and give out abortion pills without women taking legal risks.
Who is behind this media-driven NGO?
Rebecca Gomperts, a 41-year-old former doctor of the ‘Rainbow Warrior’. After a trip to Mexico, where she learnt of the distress of women with no option but illegal abortion, she decided to set up this project alone in her Amsterdam studio. In 2005 she announced to Alternet: 'I saw women so much in need and so vulnerable that I initially thought a boat which took on 20-30 women per day would be a real help. Now it’s more of a voice piece for the cause and it’s difficult to find funding.'
A media furore or a true political force?
The results of the campaigns carried out are mixed. In Ireland in 2001, not a single abortion was able to be carried out due to a lack of legal guarantee. In Poland, the presence of the ship stirred feminist associations into proposing a law to the Diete (the Polish national assembly), which was subsequently turned down. In 2004, the NGO came up against the military force of the Portuguese authorities. But the choice of the brass knuckles operation, obviously a throwback from its big sister ‘Greenpeace’, benefited from impressive media coverage – more than 20 hours of TV coverage and approximately 700 articles in the Portuguese as well as the world press.
By Silvia Felipe
Translated by Claire Hooper