Women on Waves and Others v. Portugal

Application No. 31276/05
Download Judgment: French Portuguese
Country: Portugal
Region: Europe
Year: 2009
Court: European Court of Human Rights
Health Topics: Sexual and reproductive health
Human Rights: Freedom of association, Freedom of expression
Tags: Abortion, Abortion counseling, Abortion technique, Condoms, Contraception, Contraceptives, Family planning

In 2004, three associations sent the ship Borndiep to Portugal where abortion was illegal that would stage activities promoting the decriminalization of abortion including distribution of drugs that can induce abortion. Aware of the project, the Portuguese Government prevented the boat from entering its national territory.

The three plaintiffs sued Portugal in national courts, which refused their claim. They brought the case to the Court arguing violations of Article 10 (freedom of expression) and 11 (freedom of assembly).

The Court held that the Government violated Articles 10 and 11 when considered together. The Court found insufficient evidence showing that the plaintiffs indented to violate Poruguese abortion legislation. Denying entry to the boat was a disproportionate measure and not necessary in a democratic society, even if it was allowed under national law and pursuing a legitimate goal. The Court acknowledged the importance the Portuguese Government gave to its former legislation concerning abortion and sexual education or women’s rights, but the Government could have enforced these dispositions in a softer way, such as by sequestrating the abortion-inducing pills.

“§35 - Legitimate goal: The Court accepts that the Government intrusion was aiming at protecting public Order and public Health”

« § 35 - But légitime : La Cour accepte quant à elle que l’ingérence litigieuse visait les buts légitimes de défense de l’ordre et de protection de la santé »

" § 42 – The Court doesn’t underestimate how important the protection of the legislation concerning abortion was for the Portuguese State together with the principles and values that undermined it. But the Court highlights that presenting shocking ideas contesting the modus operandi makes freedom of expression more valuable and necessary than ever.”

« § 42 - La Cour ne sous-estime pas l’importance accordée par l’Etat portugais à la protection de la législation en matière d’interruption de grossesse telle qu’applicable à l’époque ainsi qu’aux principes et valeurs qui la sous-tendent. Elle se doit cependant de souligner encore que c’est justement lorsqu’on présente des idées qui heurtent, choquent et contestent l’ordre établi que la liberté d’expression est la plus précieuse. »