Vessel: Abortion on the High Seas

“Just as all phenomena exist in time and thus have a history, they also exist in space and have a geography.” — United States National Research Council, 1997

Regularly disdained,especially by reluctant schoolchildren, geography is central to understanding the nomadic nature of women’s abortion access. It may even prove helpful in pointing to the future of abortion access. Vessel is the latest evidence: a riveting documentary following more than 10 years of geopolitical activism by a visionary, media-ready, European physician who took to the high seas in support of her mission “to create a space in which the only permission a woman needs is her own.”

This creative strategy is what caught Vessel director Diana Whitten’s attention. “Initially, I was attracted to this project by the geopolitical construct of the offshore—a space typically and historically used for crime and personal gain,” she told Conscience.

Dr. Rebecca Gomperts is a prochoice medic born into the ideologically tumultuous 60s whose activist career began as resident physician aboard the Greenpeace legend, Rainbow Warrior II (now a Bangladesh hospital ship). Gomperts participated in political and humanitarian campaigns in international waters-—a formative experience for the young artist. Adopting what Greenpeace descibes as its values of “peaceful direct action and creative communications,” she founded Women on Waves (WOW) in 1999.

Gomperts confounds antifeminist stereotypes, often arousing ire for it.
(Damned if you’re likeable; damned if you’re not.)

From the beginning, then, Gomperts was consciously assessing the impact of geographically savvy activism. Her signature strategy—extraterritorial service provision—leverages maritime law, which stipulates that shipping, while in international waters, is governed by the law of the country licensing the vessel.

Accordingly, Gomperts had the Women on Waves ship licensed in her native Holland. On-board services, including those offered in a specially designed portable gynecology unit codeveloped by Gomperts, are legal under Dutch abortion law, albeit that service recipients are neither citizens nor residents, but women denied access at home in Ireland (first voyage, 2001), Poland (police raids, 2003), Portugal (naval blockade, 2004), Spain (2008), Morocco (2012) and elsewhere. (Gom-perts is committed to working everywhere abortion is illegal.)

High-profile controversy has been a constant companion on the WOW voyages, including strenuous opposition from the Catholic hierarchy, arguably contributing to a political climate allow–ing for subsequent liberalizion of abortion laws in Spain and Portugal.

“I also loved the metaphor inherent to their work: that of a woman seeking a space outside of sovereignty in order to reclaim her own,” Whitten, a Fulbright fellow, added. “I appreciated how the metaphor manifested on the ship, with practical, tangible consequences that empower others and change the course of lives.”

© REUTERS/PAUL MCERLANE

© REUTERS/PAUL MCERLANE

Meanwhile, Rebecca Gomperts is something of a lightning rod. As veteran prochoice campaigner Katha Pollitt observes in The Nation, “Gomperts is immensely appealing: she scampers about the boat in a pretty blue dress, makes witty ripostes to reporters’ bumptious questions and reveals that she herself is pregnant at exactly the right moment, in a TV debate with a particularly sexist anti-choicer.” That is, Gomperts confounds antifeminist stereotypes, often arousing ire for it. (Damned if you’re likeable; damned if you’re not.) For the filmmaker, she was key. “I felt that Rebecca as a character, and her story, would offer new and unusual inroads to the ‘abortion issue’ for many people who might find abortion difficult to talk about,” Whitten said.

The less telegenic story followed here involves Gomperts’ evolution into the high-impact Women on Web, providing online instructions for medication-induced self-abortion, per World Health Organization protocols. Where necessary, WOW also distributes pills to women worldwide (misoprostol, already extensively available for postpartum bleeding and ulcers). WOW also partners with grassoots organizations globally in support of abortion information hotlines and to train local healthcare providers in miso administration—all activities we may champion as benevolent alternatives to the back alleys. “This is about taking power over one’s own life,” Gomperts says. “I don’t think women are so scared to do that, actually. It might be that the world is scared of women who are doing that.”

Thus, the lofty goals of Women on Waves/Web—providing safe, nonsurgical abortions and raising awareness of abortion restrictions wherever they exist—may be understood through the prism of 21st-century geography.

“Making a film isn’t finding the answer to a question; it’s trying to capture life as it is.” Oscar-nominated documentarian, the late Albert “Grey Gardens” Maysles, codirector of HBO’s Abortion: Desperate Choices (1992), famously noted. Diana Whitten might have been his student.

The first surprise of Vessel is that so much contemporary footage exists, shot on varying quality media. Perhaps Gomperts consciously archived her work from the start; we aren’t told. Traditionally, documentaries have relied on (and suffered from) overuse of still pictures, talking heads and dramatic reconstructions of varying quality. In recent years, ahistoric storytelling has added to the inevitable limitations of the medium. We need to know the story’s timing and context, and we’re not always advised. Not so here.

The major effect of keeping time and place clear in the storytelling contributes to the film’s second surprise—this documentary is thrilling!

Notwithstanding that we have a pretty good outline of the “plot” ahead of time, the unfolding of events is presented with high drama. We are on the edge of our seats. We feel the triumphs and frustrations of Gomperts, her crew, the women seeking help. We’re angry at the obtuseness of the vessel’s opponents, their misogyny. We’re exasperated at the bureaucratic obstacles and delays, at the failures (predictably, perhaps, in Ireland, where abortion access and geography have been fused for at least a century). We cheer for the lessons learned. We’re on board.

Vessel is Whitten’s fourth film as a director and her first feature. A proud feminist and political filmmaker, she is no naif. Prominent among Whitten’s roster of executive producers is industry giant Abigail Disney, grand-niece of Mickey Mouse’s online begetter. “I approached Abby Disney in the early stages of Vessel’s production eight years ago,” explained Whitten, a fan who describes Disney’s own work as “groundbreaking.” “Abby took a huge political risk. I was a first-time filmmaker with a controversial subject and a radical main character, and she took a leap with me. Her early support made Vessel possible.”

The production team credits are also impressive. This is a film to be taken seriously by the industry as well as by the public.

A major hit at its 2014 South by Southwest (SXSW) Festival debut, Vessel captured both a Special Jury Award for Political Courage and a competitive Audience Award. (The irony of such enthusiasm coming out of restrictive Texas wasn’t lost on those present.) Vessel was also well received at Colorado’s influential Telluride Film Festival in September.

Feminist critics have unambiguously embraced Vessel. Katha Pollitt was “exhilarated” and “inspired,” advertising both online accessibility and availability to groups for consciousness-raising screenings. She calls the documentary no less than “a tribute to feminist activism, courage and ingenuity” and Gomperts’ geographic strategy “clever.” Of course, Pollitt’s own unapologetic Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, published in 2014, is no less ambitious in attempting to recalibrate the abortion debate back to feminist basics—40 years later.

A younger movement voice, Jessica Valenti, worries that the now deeply entrenched legislative backlash may be drawing the United States into the WOW orbit. In her report on Vessel for The Guardian (US), she observes,“It’s hard not think about the current hostile climate for reproductive rights here in the US and wonder: ‘How long until illegal abortion is the norm here, too?’”

Whitten is no less concerned. “I was surprised to see how radically the landscape has changed here in the States since I began production of Vessel,” she said. “ I thought this film would be a foreign story, about women living in places where abortion is illegal and inaccessible—a cautionary tale for us here at home. Since the 2011 Congress, and the concentrated effort by conservatives to limit women’s access to reproductive choice and healthcare, many American women are now living under the same conditions with regard to abortion access as the women visited by Rebecca’s ship. It has become a local story.” Indeed, Katha Pollitt reports that American women are already crossing into Mexico for misoprostol.

Confronted with the prospect that abortion will shortly be legal in name only, activists here are likely to begin looking to creative—even metageographic—strategies to help women in need.

Rebecca Gomperts’ work forcefully illustrates the possibilites, and Diana Whitten has grippingly told the story. We may be grateful to them both.

Ruth Riddick led a successful appeal at the European Court of Human Rights against Ireland's restriction on information about extra-territorial legal abortion (Open Door Counselling, 1992), resulting in Irish constitutional and legal reform. Her polemic on "women's right to choose" is featured in the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing. She is a regular contributor to Conscience, usually writing on film and the arts.

Let us know what you think.

Email your letter to the editor to conscience@CatholicsforChoice.org