European Court of Human Rights Rules in Favor of Women on Waves

A Chamber Judgment released yesterday by the European Court of Human Rights found that Portugal had violated Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights in 2004 when Women on Waves, a Dutch nonprofit organization that provides medical abortions in international waters, was banned from entering Portuguese waters on a ministerial order. The case, filed by Women on Waves and two Portuguese reproductive rights organizations, alleged that Portugal’s actions that banned a Women on Waves ship from Portuguese waters were illegal under the freedom of expression clause in the European Convention on Human Rights.

The Administrative Court of Portugal had rejected a request in 2004 to allow the ship to enter Portuguese waters because of the intention of Women on Waves to raise awareness about Portugal’s strict abortion laws and to provide medical abortions using mifepristone for Portuguese women in international waters off the coast of Portugal. Abortion was illegal in Portugal at the time, but is now legalized. Though the Portuguese Defense Minister at the time called the small commercial vessel rented by Women on Waves a “threat to national security,” the visit was supported by a majority of the population in Portugal and the ban on entry for Women on Waves’ ship sparked demonstrations across the country.

The court stated in their judgment that “the right to freedom of expression included the choice of the form in which ideas were conveyed, without unreasonable interference by the authorities, particularly in the case of symbolic protest activities.” They viewed Portugal’s actions to ban the ship as “disproportionate to the aims pursued.”


European Court of Human Rights, 02/03/09; Feminist Majority Foundation, 08/30/04; Women on Waves, 02/03/09

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