Vessel: New documentary, powerful voice

Working with Women on Waves – the organization determined to make safe abortion available around the globe – is not for the faint of heart.

Vessel, a new documentary currently being shown around the U.S., traces the progress of Women on Waves from its beginning more than a decade ago and through its now sister organization Women on the Web. That progress winds through angry protest mobs pushing, shoving, shouting “Murderer!” “Go Away!” and worse, and throwing eggs (and worse.) The women of WoW, mild-mannered though they may appear, retaliate by cutting the ropes of police boats attempting to tow them away, going nose-to-nose with burly guys on protest lines and breaking the seals of locks placed on their supply cabinets.

Meanwhile, the movement steadily grows.

Women on Waves was founded in 1999 by Rebecca Gomperts, MD, MPP, who was trained in both medicine and visual arts in her native Amsterdam, the Netherlands. (It doesn’t hurt, for the film, that Gomperts is also attractive, articulate in several languages and highly photogenic.) As a young Ob/Gyn Gomperts traveled – one might say trained – with the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior as its doctor and an environmental activist. While sailing in South America she was struck by the numbers of women suffering from lack of access to reproductive health services and safe, legal abortions – and inspired by their stories to start Women on Waves.

The group built a clinic-in-a-box, loaded it onto a ship and sailed into such unwelcoming ports as Morocco, Portugal, Spain, Poland and eventually scattered cities around Africa, Central and South America. The strategy was to anchor 12 miles offshore in international waters, where local authorities had no jurisdiction. Local authorities were seldom pleased. Gomperts was often on land, hanging banners announcing the phone number for pregnant women to call, drumming up press – usually unfriendly press – agitating the authorities and spreading the word, smiling pleasantly in the face of incredibly hostile opposition.

Once the medical abortion procedure using misoprostol became widely available and safe, if used as directed, Women on the Web began its own ambitious program of making the procedure available through the internet. And safe abortion slowly gained through changing laws.

The movement has one simple goal: to reduce the number of deaths from unsafe abortion. It is the same goal that motivates every other reproductive justice organization, from the Center for Reproductive Rights to ACCESS: Women’s Health Justice to NARAL Pro-Choice America.

But the film ends with a litany of places where poor women (if you’ve got money, you can manage to find a safe abortion somewhere) remain at risk for lack of access to safe abortion, notably including much of the U.S. Watching it in the U.S., where abortion has been legal since 1973, and being reminded again that women here are suffering and dying today, is sobering, and indescribably sad.

The sadness comes from hearing the same, tragic stories that first inspired Rebecca Gompers, and some years ago inspired this writer to create the book you see at the right. They come through the voices in the film:

“I’m scared to death.”

“I tried hitting myself in the stomach…”

“My family would disown me if they found out.”

“Can you help me?”

How can we be ignoring these voices in the United States today?

 

 

 

Drill, baby, drill?

It’s going to be a long time fixing.

The Deepwater Horizon site is pouring some 200,000 gallons (5,000 barrels) of oil daily from a broken pipe into the Gulf of Mexico. Millions of dollars are being added to the leak’s cost, and despite BP‘s assurance that they will pay for the fix, long-term costs are beyond estimating at this point.

PBS NewsHour‘s Judy Woodruff got differing views Monday night from Greenpeace Research Director Kert Davies and Sara Banaszak, senior economist for the American Petroleum Institute. Asked how the current catastrophe will affect his organization’s long-standing opposition to off-shore drilling, Davies said

Well, it reinforces what we have seen worldwide. As we drill for oil, it’s a dirty, dangerous business. And the farther afield we go, deep into the Amazon, into the Arctic, and into deeper water, the greater those risks are, and the worse the impacts when things go terribly wrong.

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Things have gone terribly wrong. But not wrong enough to change much, considering our continuing dependence on fossil fuels. Banaszak seemed unshaken:

(A)t this point”, she said, “we don’t know what happened in that incident offshore. And that’s what’s going to be critical to find out.

What the industry has focused on doing over the years is using advanced technologies and multiple safety systems in order to prevent accidents. So, it’s a constant process of using the latest information and the latest technology, to incorporate that into developing technologies that can deliver the oil that we’re consuming in our economy today. And that’s the way the industry has approached the problem.

It was not an encouraging interview (but worth reading the entire transcript.) Banaszak mentioned that 63% of our energy comes from oil and gas, and repeatedly said that dependence will continue for at least the next 20 or 30 years. Davies mentioned, at one point, that if a similar catastrophe were to happen off the Virginia coast, where this writer grew up sailing on a pristine Chesapeake Bay and where offshore drilling could soon begin, damage would hit beaches as far north as New Jersey and beyond.

So far, one glimmer of good news for the west coast: Governor Schwarzenegger is thinking that perhaps opening up the California coast to drilling might not be such a grand idea after all.