The new documentary “Vessel” leaves the audience inspired, furious, and perhaps above all, gobsmacked with the profile of Dr. Rebecca Gomperts, a Dutch abortion provider and all around revolutionary. Gomperts first gained notoriety in 1999, when she created a mobile clinic aboard a ship and sailed to countries where abortion remains illegal. She aimed to reduce the number of unsafe abortions and unwanted pregnancies by providing sexual health services, including early medical abortions, in international waters. Because the ship flew under the flag and laws of its home country, The Netherlands, the team could provide mifepristone* and misoprostol** (the medicines, when taken together, cause an abortion) to women within the first 12 weeks of a pregnancy.
Dr. Rebecca Gomperts aboard the ship as it arrives in Spain (image courtesy of vesselthefilm.com)
The documentary highlights the gumption and resources needed to create such a novel (and enviable) social enterprise. When the ship finally takes to sea under the moniker Women on Waves, protesters and media await them at the shore. At nearly every port, authorities and politicians ensured that the ship struggled to dock, stay, and allow local women to board. Yet, as word got out of the ship’s arrival, the team received hundreds of phone calls requesting appointments and information.
The first half of the film follows the ship’s journeys and the mission of relaying the message that medical abortion with misoprostol (with or without mifepristone) gives women the possibility to safely do medical abortions themselves. This option needed a platform, and so Women on Waves transitioned from the open sea to focusing on empowering women how to do a medical abortion by distributing information through the internet, stealth advertising, and by supporting the creation of safe abortion telephone hotlines. If women could not come to the ship, thought Gomperts, she would directly deliver them the pills.
The latter half of the film follows what arose from this experience: Women on Web. Women had already figured out that taking misoprostol, available as an ulcer medication, could induce a miscarriage. Misoprostol was known for being safe, but women around the world kept asking: How do we get it?
So, along with the website, Gomperts and her team launched campaigns around the world—in Portugal, Ecuador, Morocco, and more—where they advertised the information hotline and how women could procure a safe abortion. One scene in the film plays out like a heist as the team schemes to raise a banner advertising their contact number from a statue of the Virgin Mary. Throughout, the calls for help kept coming, as did the backlash.
But Gomperts did not let backlash, or the fear of any such judgment or consequence, hold her back.
Image courtesy of vesselthefilm.com
One of the biggest takeaways from “Vessel”, besides the impressive central character, is how much fun the team appeared to be having on the boat and on the ground when planning covert advertisement campaigns. It was a refreshing reminder that empowerment should be enjoyable. Helping women receive normal medical care should feel good.
Although not explored directly in the film, Dr. Gomperts refuses to work with and in the United States. In previous interviews, she explains why she does not mail pills to women in the United States. We know all too well that although abortion has been legal in the United States since 1973, women’s access to abortion is constantly restricted by the political and religious right via TRAP laws and other legislation.
Gomperts puts the onus on us—advocates in the United States—to push for legislative change and until then, to provide medical care any way possible. She challenges women’s groups to find reliable sources for misoprostol pills and to refer women or deliver to women in order to administer safely at home. She does not want to endanger her own work, and so she calls out the abortion rights groups in the United States to rise up to the challenge of our time.
Gomperts maintained throughout the film that her work is not a personal mission, but a response to a need. She never intended to be an activist, but a doctor who alleviated suffering.
To wit, when grilled by the media about her personal life (“Have you ever had an abortion?”) she replies,
“Are you going to ask somebody working for Amnesty International if they’ve been tortured, no, come on, this is about whether or not women have basic human rights” […] “you cannot force any women to go through an unwanted pregnancy… it’s a humiliation, it’s a torture for them.”
Although she did not intend to be an activist or an anecdote, Dr. Gomperts is an ally worth emulating. She saw a need, and set out to meet that need. “Vessel” is essential viewing for abortion rights workers in the United States. May we address the needs we see and meet them, so that when women need an abortion, they do not have to rely upon obscure interventions, but upon equal, affordable, basic healthcare systems already in place.
Thank you to The Nightingale Cinema in Chicago for hosting the screening. See where else the film is screening here or watch on Video on Demand platforms or iTunes now!
*Also known as Mifeprex; RU-486
**Also known as Cytotec