Written by Leigh Kolb.
Dear Women on Waves,
I’m not married and am pregnant. I cannot have a baby.
I heard you can drink bleach, but I’m scared it will kill me.
My sister told me about your ship. Can you help me?
– Amina, Morocco
This plea opens Vessel, the documentary about the abortion-rights organization Women on Waves (and Women on Web), led by Dutch doctor Rebecca Gomperts. Women on Waves was launched in 1999, when Gomperts realized that if a Dutch ship sailed to international waters adjacent to countries with abortion restrictions, she could legally help women to have a safe abortion.
Directed by Diana Whitten, Vessel examines how, as Whitten says, “a woman had to leave one realm of sovereignty to reclaim her own.” Gomperts—who has been an artist, Greenpeace activist, doctor, and mother, all roles that inspire her work with Women on Waves—is dynamic on camera. The scenes of her deftly dealing with protesters and pundits show us the power and strength necessary to do the work that she’s doing—providing safe abortions and reproductive education to the women in places least likely to receive those services.[caption id="attachment_16295" align="aligncenter" width="300"] Rebecca Gomperts[/caption]
The original aim of Women on Waves was to sail their mobile clinic (contained in a shipping container) to countries where women most needed their services. They would get the women on board, sail 12 miles off-shore, and administer the medical abortion. Their maiden voyage was to Ireland, where they were met with harsh press, angry protesters, and legal setbacks.
When a journalist presses Gomperts and asks if she’s had an abortion, she shoots back:
“It’s a frequent medical procedure. Just because it’s women, because it’s invisible… no one fucking knows. Are you going to ask someone who works with Amnesty International if they’ve been tortured?”
One of the most powerful aspects of the documentary is the inclusion of the actual women’s words (and women in need call and email constantly). Gomperts is right: abortion is frequent and necessary. The fact that it is about women’s autonomy and choice makes it invisible, and in countries where abortion is restricted, this is incredibly dangerous. The words and voices of these women drive the documentary forward.
When they arrive in Poland, Women on Waves is contacted by a desperate young woman. She was raped, and is seven weeks pregnant. “Welcome Nazis,” male protesters scream at them as they dock their ship. This juxtaposition—the desperate woman, the vicious protestors—underscores the larger issues at play in activism surrounding abortion rights. It’s about male control.
The Portuguese government sends warships to stop their ship from sailing into international waters. The masculine image of a warship up against a small, feminine vessel built to liberate women, is dramatic. The ocean—so often symbolizing femininity—is full of possibility, and full of limitations. Through all of the gorgeous shots of the water, it’s hard to not think about Virginia Woolf or Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. The femininity of the water is liberating and stifling, and Gomperts and her amazing crew feel that when faced with each new obstacle. “I’m sure we’ll come up with something,” she says.
“We decided if women couldn’t get to the ship, we could help the women get the pills,” Gomperts says, and she announces on air on a Portuguese talk show exactly how women can self-medicate with just Misoprostol to give themselves abortion. She quickly and aggressively gives the prescription as the host nods and the smug male pundit looks stunned.
Immediately afterward, she announces her pregnancy. “If it’s wanted, it’s delicious,” she says. She stresses that she wants to show that side—that you can be pregnant, a mother, and be supportive of abortion rights. This evolution of her ethos goes hand in hand with the evolution of her activism.
A volunteer says that they get more and more emails from women who want to get the pill. There’s a plea for help from a woman in the US military in Afghanistan. “Every story of the women who write is different,” the volunteer says. “It’s hard to generalize because abortions are so common.”
The power of the Internet gives the women a new wave to ride on. They field emails and calls, and created their sister organization, the website Women on Web. It may be illegal to give women the pills, but giving information on how and when to take the pills isn’t illegal. So education—via trainings and hotlines—became their new voyage.
The power of female solidarity in Vessel is overwhelming. These women seem tireless in their goals of empowering women all over the globe—from educational workshops in Tanzania to draping “Tu Decision” with their phone number on the La Virgin del Panecillo in Quito, Ecuador (my favorite scene).[caption id="attachment_16297" align="aligncenter" width="224"] “Your Decision,” “Safe Abortion” at the feet of the Virgin at El Panecillo in Ecuador[/caption]
In 2012, Women on Web responded to more than 100,000 emails from 135 countries requesting information about abortion with pills. They point out that in some countries, abortion may be legal, but not accessible to women. The United States of America is one of those countries.
We are often so focused on changing laws that we don’t realize the power in giving women the right tools and education to empower themselves “despite the laws.” Through their campaigns—across the sea and across the web—Women on Waves and Women on Web do it all, effecting change in legislation and in women’s personal lives.
The documentary is understated and beautiful, and we are left with a sense of hope. The images of women celebrating in spite of men screaming and yelling, and the images of a fearless older woman with bruises on her arms from fighting with police who ransacked their ship remind us what power we truly have.
While the virgin-in-chains turned abortion-activist was my favorite image in the film, the most emotional moment was during an email exchange with a woman from Nairobi. She kisses the pills when she gets them, and a raw, personal email exchange follows as she goes through the process. When it’s over, she requests the name of the volunteer who was emailing her. A Women on Web volunteer responds that they are a collective, working as a team, so she couldn’t give the specific name—a beautiful and poignant reminder of the power of both individual stories and collective support.
“Women will make it happen.”
* * *
Vessel, Diana Whitten’s first feature film, won the Audience Award in the Documentary Competition and the Special Jury Award for Political Courage at South by Southwest.
Leigh Kolb is a composition, literature, and journalism instructor at a community college in rural Missouri.