Taking to the Waves, and Web

Terminating Pregnancies in International Waters

Women On Waves performs abortions on the high seas for women from countries where it is illegal. 'Vessel,' to be screened at the Jerusalem Film Festival, explores the tribulations of the multinational campaign.

From the film 'Vessel'

Every 10 minutes, a woman somewhere in the world dies from complications from an illegal abortion. That is 52,650 women per year. These statistics are particularly surprising since prescription drugs that terminate pregnancy within the first few weeks are available in almost every pharmacy on earth, and the mortality rate among those who take the drugs is one in 500,000. The drug is safer than every simple antibiotic or Viagra.

Unable to bear this absurd situation any longer, Dutch gynecologist Dr. Rebecca Gomperts decided to provide safe abortions in the legally porous domain of international waters. In a telephone interview from her home in The Netherlands, Dr. Gomperts explains that while international law prohibits abortions, they take place anyway, with high risk to women. The result is that instead of preventing abortions, the law puts women at risk.

Gomperts established an organization, Women On Waves, based on the following equation: When a ship sails into international waters, it is subject to the legal system of the country to which it belongs. So if abortion is legal in The Netherlands, that law applies to a Dutch ship in international waters anchored off the Irish coast but outside its territorial waters.

The hardships endured by Women On Waves are the subject of a documentary film entitled “Vessel,” to be screened at the Jerusalem Cinematheque on Wednesday evening and Thursday lunchtime in the “Spirit of Freedom” category of the Jerusalem Film Festival, which opened on Thursday. “Vessel” has already been screened at several festivals around the world and has won three awards.

Gomperts, whose enormous charisma might be described as proper for a leader, succeeded in getting many woman on board with the project from the start. Each woman donated what she could and together they purchased a boat, built a small clinic there and in 2005 set sail for a voyage around the world to provide safe abortions to women living in countries where they were illegal. Women On Waves does not terminate pregnancies using dilation and curettage (D and C) or any other invasive procedure. Rather, it does so using the pregnancy-termination drugs that the World Health Organization determined to be safe and even vital for global health. Both The Netherlands and Israel use the same drugs to terminate pregnancies without invasive procedures.

“Vessel” is director Diana Whitten’s first full-length film. After following Gomperts and her work for seven years, Whitten spent several more years going through the thousands of hours of raw material that she had collected. The result justifies the effort. “Vessel” is a fascinating film, by turns happy and sad, optimistic and pessimistic and very moving throughout.

As the film follows Gomperts’s efforts to turn her unlikely idea into a worldwide movement, it touches on the complex, sensitive and political issue of terminating unwanted pregnancies. The status of women is on one side of the scale, with religious belief, patriarchal societies and firm conservatism on the other.

Besides the moral questions, which naturally turn into a philosophical debate, the issue of motherhood – a woman’s wondrous ability to carry life within her when she wishes – is juxtaposed with the agony that this ability brings with it when she does not. The dichotomy between happy mothers – Gomperts herself is one – and girls and women whose lives childbirth and child-rearing changed in ways they did not want, or even endangered, runs like a thread through the film.

Stopping the ship, but not the idea

At the ship’s first stops in Europe, the women had to deal with governmental obstacles and sharp opposition. The first stop was Ireland, where Catholicism rules the roost, forbidding abortions completely.

The ship got a tumultuous reception at the Irish port. Reporters, women’s groups and conservative and religious organizations were waiting on the pier. While the media had a field day with the explosive news item, the authorities put every obstacle they could in the way. The film does not show the women undergoing the abortion on the ship, but the number of patients who did so – in this case, 120 – was mentioned.

The next stop was Poland, where statistics speak of roughly 200,000 illegal abortions per year. One member of the Polish parliament has suggested photographing every woman who went on board the ship so as to shame her, and very quickly police officers boarded the ship and forbade the women there to take the drugs until the ship had left Polish territorial waters. In Portugal, the ship could not even anchor, and two army vessels escorted it out of the harbor, claiming that the women on board were a danger to national security.

But those incidents only made Gomperts more determined to carry out her mission. Then came a moment of revelation, during which she realized that she did not have to be present to help the women terminate their pregnancies safely – she could tell them how to do so on their own at home.

“The governments can stop the ship, but not the Internet,” she said as her organization gave rise to another, extremely effective way to terminate unwanted pregnancies.

One in every three women

Here is how it works:

No invasive procedure is necessary for the legal termination of pregnancies up to eight weeks. During the first trimester, two drugs – misoprostol and mifepristone – used in combination terminate pregnancy in a manner similar to a natural miscarriage, which happens in 20 percent of pregnancies. Misoprostol is a drug used mainly to treat ulcers, so it may be obtained almost anywhere in the world with a standard doctor’s prescription. When both drugs are used to terminate a pregnancy, their effectiveness rate is 95 percent. The effectiveness rate of misoprostol alone is 90 percent.

In 2006, after realizing how much the Internet could be of help, Gomperts established another organization, Women On Web, a large network of women from all over the world who believe that women can terminate their own pregnancies and guide them in the use of misoprostol for that purpose. Guidance is provided in the local language via email correspondence or chat. The members of Women On Web recommend that women or girls who wish to terminate a pregnancy of less than 12 weeks get a doctor’s prescription for misoprostol and take 12 pills.

One of the ways to get the prescription is via the group’s own Internet site, which has sample standard prescription forms from various countries that women can print out and take to the pharmacy. In places where the drug cannot be obtained – such as Brazil, where its use is prohibited – or where it is expensive and the woman cannot afford it, the organization sends the 12 pills through the mail. In many places throughout the world, the women’s network makes contact with a specific pharmacy and asks it to sell the drug without a prescription.

Now, when the ship sails to the shores of countries, the women no longer try to perform abortions on board. Instead, they create a provocation to make as many women as possible aware of their hotline. For example, in Ecuador, they hung up a sign with the number of their hotline on – of all places – the enormous statue of the Virgin Mary above Quito, the capital city.

So far, Women On Web has received more than 100,000 emails from women in 135 countries. The organization helps each one as long as she has not passed the eighth week of her pregnancy. That is the main disadvantage of the method, but Gomperts says that most of the women discover that they are pregnant much earlier.

When Gomperts seeks to provide moral justification for her actions in one of our conversations, she does not pull out a ready-made explanation, as a woman who dealt with this subject on a daily basis might do. She hesitates, then says that in her opinion, the fetus has value if the woman carrying it gives it value. But if the woman does not want the fetus, she believes it has no value – in other words, the pregnancy’s worth is what the woman carrying it determines it is.

She says that if we look at human reality, the value of human life is dependent on context and is not absolute. In wartime, for example, the value of soldiers’ lives is different from the lives of the very same people when they are out of uniform and in a state of peace. Leaders all over the world are willing to sacrifice the lives of very many people just to accomplish an abstract goal. In the case of terminating a pregnancy, the goal is very concrete – the woman’s welfare.

Director Whitten says that responses to the film have been emotional. She explains that this stems from the fact that one in every three women on earth terminates a pregnancy, which makes this subject close to the hearts of many. When asked about the most moving response so far, she tells about a woman in Texas who approached her in tears after a screening and told her, “I’m not a monster either. Thank you for putting that sentence into this film.” The woman was referring to one of the saddest scenes in the film, which shows a verbal exchange between a woman in Nairobi, Kenya, and Women On Web’s online hotline.

The woman writes to the hotline that she has received the pills that they sent her, and is now alone in a hotel room. She melts four of the first pills under her tongue and waits for the hours to pass until she can take the rest. She writes, “This is by far the loneliest I have been,” describing the pain she feels in her uterus from the contractions, adding, “I am not a monster. I simply cannot give birth to this fetus.”

From the film 'Vessel.'