Two Abortion Supporters Covered in Red Paint Thrown at Them by Anti-Abortion Protestors

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Two Abortion Supporters Covered in Red Paint Thrown at Them by Anti-Abortion Protestors


By: Eryk Puchala

Date: June 22, 2003

Source: The Associated Press

About the Photographer: Eryk Puchala is a photographer in Poland and contributed this photo to the Associated Press, a worldwide news agency based in New York.


Women on Waves is a pro-abortion-rights organization headquartered in the Netherlands. It was founded in 1999 by Rebecca Gomperts, a medical doctor and artist. Gomperts's experience as physician for the Greenpeace protest vessel Rainbow Warrior led her to conceive of using vessels to bring attention to the illegality of abortion in some countries. Women on Waves has rented a vessel three times for pro-abortion campaigns in European countries where abortion is illegal. The ship is equipped as an abortion clinic and education center. Before arriving in a country, Women on Waves establishes a local hotline service and distributes free phone cards; while their vessel is in-country, women can make an appointment by calling, e-mailing, or showing up. Although it is equipped and licensed by the Dutch Ministry of Health for actual medical services, the goal of the campaign is not to provide abortions for large numbers of women—which is physically impractical—but to provoke public debate about legal abortion.

The ship chartered for the Poland campaign, the Langenort, arrived in Polish waters on June 20, 2003. The ship was met at dockside on June 22 by supporters welcoming it, and by protestors from the political party League of Polish Families, who threw eggs and red paint at the ship. The women shown here are splattered with some of the paint.

Upon arrival, the supply of RU-486 abortion pills aboard the ship, in the medicine chest, was sealed by customs officials to prevent its distribution in Poland. The distinction between national and international waters became important for the project at this point; Polish women desiring abortions were taken aboard the ship into international waters three times. The medical staff on board the ship unsealed the medicine chest, gave the abortion pill to the women, and then returned to Polish waters. By providing abortion services only outside the country, Women on Waves and the women receiving the abortions avoided breaking Polish law.

The Women on Waves ship stayed in Poland for two weeks. It received hundreds of calls and a number of women came to the ship. Media coverage and public debate were intense. According to Women on Waves, a July 12, 2003 survey commissioned by the Polish journal Polityka found that 65 percent of the Polish population supported the project. Moreover, the official Polish polling bureau, Opinii Spolecznej, found that before the ship's visit, in Fall 2002, 44 percent of those polled thought Polish abortion law should be liberalized, while afterward, in Fall 2003, the percentage was 56 percent. The bureau speculated that the 12 percent increase, from minority to majority opinion, might have been a result of the Women on Waves visit.



See primary source image.


Women on Waves has made abortion-ship journeys not only to Poland, but also to Ireland (2001) and Portugal (2004), all primarily Catholic countries where abortion is illegal. In Ireland, for example, abortion is illegal except to save the life of a woman; it is not legal even in cases where pregnancy has resulted from incest or rape, although Irish courts have allowed women whose pregnancies resulted from rape to get abortions in England.

Abortion was legal in Poland under Soviet governance. Approximately 180,000 legal abortions were performed yearly. When Communist rule collapsed, a pro-Catholic government came to power and in 1993 banned abortion except (a) to save the woman's life, (b) if the fetus is "irreparably damaged," or (c) the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest. In practice, according to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, even when these conditions are met "social factors did not allow for possibilities of carrying out abortion mostly due to political and religious ramifications." Only about 150 legal abortions are carried out every year in Poland today. However, the Polish Ministry of Health estimates that 50,000-70,000 illegal abortions are carried out yearly. The United Nations, citing nongovernmental organizations, estimates that the figure is 80,000-200,000. Sixty percent of Polish women are below the poverty line, and so cannot afford to travel abroad to get abortions or to pay the high fees for illegal abortions. In February 2006, a Polish woman who went blind after being refused an abortion took her case to the European Court of Human Rights, arguing that although several doctors had told her that she will go blind if she had another baby, she was nevertheless denied an abortion under Polish law. The Court cannot overturn Polish law but could rule that the woman's human rights are being violated. The case was still pending as of mid-2006.

In the United States, legal battles arising from actions by anti-abortion protestors (such as those that threw the paint in this photograph) have gone all the way to the Supreme Court. Throwing eggs or paint at persons is considered a form of assault, regardless of the circumstances; furthermore, the Court has approved eight-foot-radius "bubble zones" around patients approaching or leaving abortion or family-planning clinics. Protestors cannot legally approach any unwilling patient more closely than eight feet (though they are not required to move away if the patient approaches them). In 2005, the Pittsburgh City Council approved a rule barring protestors from within fifteen feet of the doorway of any health-care facility; no court has yet ruled on the constitutionality of this provision. In 1994, the U.S. Congress made it illegal to attack or blockade abortion clinics, their operators, or their clients. In 2006, however, the Supreme Court ruled that federal racketeering and extortion laws could not be applied to levy higher penalties against anti-abortion protestors who repeatedly violated the 1994 law.


Web sites

Murphy, Clare. "Abortion Ship Makes Waves in Poland." BBC News. July 1, 2003. 〈〉 (accessed April 5, 2006).

Feminist Majority Foundation "Anti-Abortion Activists Protest Women on Waves." 〈〉 (accessed April 5, 2006).

United Nations Office at Geneva. "Human Rights Committee Considers Report of [sic] Poland." October 28, 2004. 〈〉 (accessed April 5, 2006).

Women on Waves: Campaigns. 〈〉 (accessed April 5, 2006).