European Parliament legislators on Thursday turned a fight over abortion rights in Portugal into an emotional and divisive debate on women's rights and the division between church and state.
The legislature's socialists and greens had asked for the debate because they want the EU head office to take legal action against Portugal for banning a boat of Dutch abortion rights activists from entering their waters.
However, the question whether the Portuguese government acted within EU law turned into a heated discussion pitting whether abortion should be outlawed in the 25-nation bloc.
Michal Tomasz Kaminski, Polish member of the Union for the Europe of the Nation's group quoted the Bible to back his argument that "unborn children have a right to life," leading to a strong rebuke from socialists.
"We feel the Portuguese government is entitled to refuse entry to a ship which would bring death," Kaminski said. "Anything you do to those weaker, you do unto me," he said, quoting from the Bible.
The ship with abortion activists has already headed back to the Netherlands.
"I find it sad that there are people in this House that want to imprison citizens and women in ignorance," said British Labour member Michael Cashman. "I see the fingers of the Vatican all over this. Women need no lectures from men in frocks telling them what they should do with their bodies. Please keep your religion out of our lives and please keep it out of politics."
Dutch green member Kathalijne Buitenweg said it was "unacceptable" that Portuguese authorities saw the ship as a "threat to public health."
Portuguese conservative Vasco Graca Moura disagreed, saying the EU had no business in a national matter.
"This is a useless debate," Graca Moura said. "Termination of abortions fall under the competencies of member states."
Trying to appease both sides, EU Commissioner Margot Wallstrom said the European Commission would seek an explanation before considering legal action whether Lisbon violated EU law.
"The commission intends to seek information on the precise motives and implications of the decision," Wallstrom said.
She added that under EU law, "member states can restrict" fundamental rights such as freedom of movement of people "only when it is justified ... for public security and public health.
"The commission believes that any member state adopting a decision restricting the free movement of persons must respect fundamental rights, including the freedom of expression as general principles of (EU) community law."
The Amsterdam-based volunteer group Women on Waves said it would appeal a Portuguese court ruling two weeks ago, which backed Portuguese authorities in barring their campaign boat from Portuguese waters.
The group had intended to offer abortion-inducing pills to local women aboard its boat, taking them into international waters where they would be outside the reach of Portuguese laws.
The pills are prohibited in Portugal, a mostly Roman Catholic country which, along with other EU states such as Poland, Malta and Ireland forbids abortion on demand.
Portugal's conservative government, citing local laws and public health concerns, refused to allow the boat carrying campaigners from the privately funded organization to dock late last month.
The Navy deployed a warship to shadow the boat and ensure it stays outside the 12-mile limit.
Women on Waves was set up in 1999 and sailed abroad for the first time in 2001 to Ireland. It has also visited Polish waters.
On the Web:
European Parliament: http://www.europarl.eu.int/
Women On Waves: http://www.womenonwaves.org/