Vessel's Dr. Rebecca Gomperts on Providing Abortions to Women in International Waters

'Vessel' follows the Dutch physician who founded Women on Waves, which provides abortion services on a boat in international waters to women in countries with restrictive laws.

03.09.14 2:03 PM ET

Protesters call it the “Ship of Death.”

Since 2001, Women on Waves (WoW), a Dutch non-profit organization, has chartered a yacht to countries with restrictive abortion laws. It docks in places ranging from Ireland to Morocco, and women in desperate need of abortions board the ship (sometimes in disguise), sail into international waters, and undergo a medical abortion—a non-surgical pill that combines the drugs misoprostol and mifepristone. The whole operation is possible due to a loophole in international law whereby when on a vessel in international waters, the laws of the flagship country apply. Women on Waves boat is a Dutch ship, and in the Netherlands abortion is legal up to six-and-a-half weeks into a woman’s pregnancy.

Women on Waves was founded in 1999 by Dr. Rebecca Gomperts, a Dutch physician and activist. She’s the subject of Vessel, a new documentary premiering at South By Southwest. Filmmaker Diana Whitten trailed Gomperts for seven years, capturing contentious missions to Spain and Morocco.

The festival setting of Austin, Texas couldn’t be more apt for Gomperts and Whitten. With the recent closure of an independently owned abortion clinic in Harlingen, the Lone Star State has become key in the fight over abortion. Currently, Texas has only 19 abortion clinics (down from 44 in 2011). New restrictions that went into effect at the end of November require abortion doctors to obtain admitting privileges from a local hospital within 30 miles of their clinic, which led to several closures. Furthermore, in September, the new Texas law will require that abortion clinics abide by the codes of ambulatory surgery centers—health care facilities where surgical procedures that do not require an overnight stay are performed. Only six abortion clinics in Texas meet the standards to qualify as an ASC.

“I couldn’t ask for a more ideal place in terms of drawing that connection between the realities of women here and the realities of women abroad,” said Whitten.

“Control of people’s lives is the domain of religion—whether it’s moral control, ethical control, or social control,” added Gomperts. “The reality is that whatever religion people are, they still have abortions. In the U.S., there’s supposed to be a separation of church and state, but as we see here, it doesn’t really exist. There’s a huge influence of religion on political life. As long as that separation is not taken seriously, religion is going to be a problem. It’s a total farce.”

Gomperts, a striking woman in her 40s, has always had a penchant for social justice. After attending medical school in Amsterdam—as well as art school—she dabbled in radiology, before eventually becoming an abortion provider. 

“There was no light bulb moment, it was just something I was drawn to,” Gomperts told The Daily Beast in Austin. “What essentially motivates me is the right to autonomy and self-determination. It’s a fundamental human right.”

After becoming an abortion provider, Gomperts interned at a hospital in Guinea, Africa, and witnessed firsthand the perils of women struggling to obtain abortions.

“There were constantly women coming in there on the verge of shock, infected, and bleeding because of botched abortions,” said Gomperts. “I thought it was a problem of healthcare provision, not because it was illegal. Greenpeace educated me politicaly.”

Gomperts served as a doctor aboard Greenpeace’s vessel Rainbow Warrior II and began canvassing abortion providers in places like Mexico. Then, with the help of a seaman, she hatched the idea for Women on Waves—a floating clinic serving women in countries banning abortion. With funding from ten private donors, the first abortion ship, Aurora, set sail for Ireland in 2001. It was equipped with 20 doses of RU-486 (the abortion pill), birth control pills, condoms, and a mobile surgical abortion facility (designed by Gomperts herself). As many as 100 women rang the Women on Waves hotline pleading for abortions, but when the ship docked in Ireland, it was met with a flood of journalists and protesters. Fearing an international incident, the Dutch justice minister claimed that Women on Waves had failed to acquire the necessary medical licensing to perform abortions, and the mission was, well, aborted.

Women on Waves’ second mission to Poland in 2003 didn’t fare much better. Protesters and anti-abortion organizations hurled red paint at the boat and pegged Gomperts and her crew with eggs. They also threatened to photograph women who boarded the boat. The following year, its vessel was blocked from docking in Portugal by two Portuguese Navy warships sent by the government.

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“There’s constant intimidation to try to stop our work from happening,” said Gomperts.

Even Whitten, during the making of Vessel, received various threats—letters about murdering baby-killers and the like.  
“Someone subscribed me to American Baby magazine recently, which was very weird,” said Whitten. “I don’t have a baby… and it was my home address.”

According to Gomperts, she is the only paid member of Women on Waves. The rest of the crew is comprised of volunteers, and women who come onboard don’t have to pay a dime. The operation is funded by private investors in the Netherlands, as well as donations. Gomperts and Co. rent a ship for about a week for each mission, and the average cost of a campaign, she says, is around 30,000-40,000 Euros.

In 2008, Women on Waves docked in Valencia, Spain. The ship was met with a mixture of protesters and women’s rights activists. In one gripping scene in the film, harbor patrol agents on a tiny motorboat attempt to lasso a rope around the Women on Waves ship’s helm and pull it from the dock. As the ship is being pulled away, Gomperts brandishes a knife and cuts the rope.

“We helped four women in Spain get abortions,” said Gomperts. “Unfortunately, the numbers on the ship are minimal, because it’s tough for us to get women onboard, or for the ship to come in and go out.”

Most of the work, then, is provided by Women on Web—an offshoot of Women on Waves that helps educate women in need of abortions get access to abortion pills. By Gomperts’s estimation, the site answers 100,000 emails a year in 12 different languages.

“There are very few major health problems out there that require such a simple remedy,” said Gomperts. “It’s just a pill. That’s it. There was similar opposition to birth control, the morning-after pill—every contraceptive. Abortion pills should be available in pharmacies like the morning-after pill. Women would be able to take their lives into their own hands and take the medication as needed with the proper instructions.”

Women on Waves and Women on Web also encourage women in countries that have outlawed abortion to take the drug misoprostol—one of the two drugs found in the abortion pill. When taken in high doses, misoprostol has an 80 percent chance of inducing a miscarriage, and since it’s sold as an over the counter ulcer remedy, it’s fairly easy to obtain.

The most recent mission to the Women on Waves vessel to Morocco, but they were kicked out immediately.

“What was interesting about Morocco was that it was the first country where they don’t even pretend there’s a rule of law,” said Gomperts. “Morocco is a police state. They didn’t give a shit about any legal procedures. Our lawyer in Morocco wasn’t even allowed to get to the ship while the police were searching it, so we were worried they’d plant drugs onboard. The police even went to the homes of local activists who were working with us to intimidate their parents.”

According to the World Health Organization, 21.6 million women experience an unsafe abortion worldwide each year, while 18.5 million of these occur in developing countries. Also, 47,000 women die from complications of unsafe abortion each year—though these are the only ones that have been tabulated—and account for approximately 13 percent of all maternal deaths.

“The most important misconception is that abortion is rare, or that it’s ever going to be rare,” said Gomperts. “Abortion will always be a normal medical procedure. One in three women in the U.S. have had an abortion. And worldwide, it’s almost every woman. More people die from using Viagra than from abortions. It’s one of the safest medical procedures. It’s safer than giving birth."