Wednesday 4 February 2009

Women on Waves

Yesterday, the Court issued its judgment in the case of Women on Waves and others v. Portugal and found a violation of Article 10 ECHR (freedom fo expression).

The applicants were three NGOs: a Dutch one (owning a boat on which they used to give information courses concerning reproductive rights and abortion) and two Portuguese ones. In 2004 Women on Waves planned meetings on its ship in a Portuguese port for interested women, but the Portuguese authorities refused entry to the ship and blocked it by way of a war ship. At the time abortion in Portugal was not allowed and the authorities indicated that they thought the Women on Waves ship would give Portuguese women access to forbidden abortion procedures and medicines.

The European Court held the interference to be disproportionate. It noted that nothing indicated that the NGOs had wanted to administer abortion medicines. The aim rather was to inform people. The Strasbourg judges re-emphasized that not only the content but also the form in which information is conveyed are protected by the European Convention. Thus although meetings on land were held in Portugal eventually, the preference of the NGOs to hold the sessions on the ship as they had always done should have been respected. It also noted that the use of a war vessel to stop the ship in itself may have a chilling effect.

For those familiar with the Court's case law it is interesting to see that the Court referred multiple times to its classic case on abortion information, the 1992 Open Door and Dublin Well Woman judgment, in which a violation of Article 10 ECHR was also found. How much has changed in 17 years: this time the judgment was unanimous, whereas the 1992 case counted a staggering 18 pages of concurring, separate and dissenting opinions!

The judgment itself is available only in French at the moment, but a press release in English may be found here. As the Women on Waves' own press release indicates, following a 2007 referendum, abortion is now legal in Portugal.