The right to have a safe abortion, to have control over what happens to your body as a woman, is something most of us feel to be within our reach in the UK, but Vessel examines the parts of the world where this isn’t commonplace.
Whilst legal in some countries, many fervently disagree that abortion is a right in the first place. However, criminalising the right to choose to have an abortion doesn’t prevent abortions from happening; they still occur, just in far more dangerous circumstances for women, who are often desperate enough to take the risk. Vessel follows the remarkable – and literal – journey undertaken by a group of real women trying to bring hope to those threatened by anti-abortion enforcement all over the world.
They give the women the abortion pill in international waters, so it is accountable to Dutch law where abortion is legal
But how can you help women have safe abortions in countries where abortion is illegal? ‘Women on Waves’, as this non-profit organisation is called, travel on a small ship from Holland to places from where pregnant women have contacted them, places like Morocco and Ireland, urgently seeking a safe abortion for many different reasons. These include fear of religious persecution, because they are victims of rape or face being ousted by their families. They then receive the abortion pill on an installed clinic on the boat. ‘Women on Waves’ are able to do this because in international waters, the ship is accountable to Dutch law, and in the Netherlands, abortion is legal.
This combination of innovation and care that breathes life into this almost wild operation mirrors the nature of its orchestrator, doctor and artist, Rebecca Gomperts. One of the things I liked most about Vessel was how it follows Gomperts’ unwavering spirit and determination towards the campaign since 1999. The documentary-style of the film means we see Gomperts being surrounded by crowds of shouting protestors, refused entry into ports and personally challenged on television, but she remains positive and often light-hearted and funny too. The film also gives an insight into why the women continue to remain so individually passionate about this cause. Interviewing telephone operators and those recruited along the way, Vessel displays the courage of both the women seeking abortions but also that of the campaigners helping them to do so. One particularly poignant moment is when a woman reflects on what it means to have an abortion after taking the abortion pill.
It displays the courage of both the women seeking abortions but also that of the campaigners helping them to do so
Defending herself as not a “monster”, it reiterated for me that abortion always involves at least two lives but whilst you might identify as pro-choice yourself, this doesn’t mean that you don’t appreciate the graveness of the situation. Vessel provides us with straightforward medical advice surrounding abortion too, and this coupled with footage of Gomperts and her team’s perseverance parallels the fact that ‘Women on Waves’ has managed to help so many women through simple information and sheer dedication.
The film highlights how courage and determination can go a long way and mistakes can be major lessons towards success. Vessel has won numerous awards at various film festivals, including the 2014 SXSW in Texas, and I feel that this is justly so.
Images: Sovereignty Productions