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?