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'Abortion ship' activists from Washington state booted from Guatemala

Women on Waves
From right, Dan and Merilee Evans of Port Townsend, Washington, hold a poster while detained in a Guatemalan port last week. At left are fellow Women on Waves crew members Alecia Ott and Seth Bearden.

A husband and wife from Port Townsend, Washington, are on their way home after being expelled from Guatemala. The Washingtonians and several other international activists narrowly avoided arrest during a maritime abortion rights protest.

Merilee Nyland Evans and her husband Daniel volunteered to go to Guatemala aboard a 36-foot sailboat run by an activist group named "Women on Waves." The Dutch-based group sails to countries with restrictive abortion laws to offer free abortions at sea.

Abortion is illegal in Guatemala except to save the life of the mother, as is the case in many Latin American countries.

At the Pacific port of Quetzal last week, the activist group advertised they would take women up to ten weeks pregnant out to international waters -- 12 miles offshore. There they could provide abortion pills to end unwanted pregnancies by inducing a miscarriage.

The abortion pill is a combination of two medicines — one to end the pregnancy, and another to flush it out. It typically takes about two days to complete. Complications are rare, according to Planned Parenthood. In the U.S., an abortion pill costs about $800.

This did not sit well with the government and military, which accused the ship's crew of entering the country under false pretenses.

"We became aware some foreign women had called a meeting to offer this type of service -- to perform abortions from this port," said Guatemala's Deputy Minister of the Navy Erick Sánchez at a news conference to explain the crew's expulsion. "Know that we know what really was their intention in our country. The order of our military general and president is to give them the clear choice to leave our waters."

"It important to reiterate that our constitution, Article 3, talks precisely about the protection of human life from conception and all the inherent rights of a person," he said later on.

A four-day standoff involving the international crew, Guatemalan military and police, lawyers and local protesters ended with the expulsion under navy escort of the self-described "abortion ship" on Saturday night. Women on Waves said they got dozens of calls from potential patients last week, but never had the chance to dispense any pills.

The Evanses checked in from Atlanta Thursday afternoon during a roundabout journey home via Mexico to Western Washington.

Daniel Evans was listed as the abortion ship's captain on Guatemalan harbormaster docking permits posted to social media. At home in Port Townsend, he works with the Northwest Maritime Center as "race boss" for the annual Race to Alaska adventure contest.

According to her Facebook profile, Merilee Evans is a caregiver at Peninsula Homecare Cooperative who formerly crewed on a Sea Shepherd ship. Sea Shepherd is known for its confrontational anti-whaling and marine conservation campaigns.

The Women on Waves website provided a blow-by-blow account of the episode in Guatemala ending with a summation that sounded both triumphant and aggrieved.

"The campaign has called attention to the violations of women’s human right by the restrictive abortion laws to inform the public about abortion pills," the statement read. "In order to guarantee the future freedom to peace full (sic) protest and activism in Guatemala all participating activists agreed that it is very important to continue with the legal battle against the expulsion of the crew up the Inter-American Court of Human Rights."

Women on Waves spokesperson Leticia Zenevich wrote via email Thursday that "for the security of the boat" she could not disclose where the group's sailboat is now. She said the organization will soon begin planning its next campaign.

"We don't know where it will be yet," Zenevich said.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.