Frisky Q&A: Dr. Rebecca Gomperts, Human Rights Activist & At-Sea Abortion Provider

Dr. Rebecca Gomperts is a physician, artist, human rights activist, and founder of organizations Women on Waves and Women on Web, which are featured in the documentary “Vessel.” The organizations provide safe abortion options to women living in countries with restrictive abortion laws. Gomperts launched the Women on Waves, which sails a mobile abortion clinic to international waters to provide legal procedures, after witnessing too many patients suffering from the often fatal effects of botched illegal abortions.

A vessel in international waters is governed under the laws of its flagship country. Gomperts (and her boat) are Dutch, and in the Netherlands, abortion is legal in the first few weeks of pregnancy. When the ship docks, women in need of the procedure board the ship, often in the face of protests and disagreement. Once at sea, where the abortion is legal, they take a pill that terminates their pregnancy. The Women on Waves team receives a stream of desperate letters from women who are unable to continue their pregnancies but without options. In an effort to help as many women as they possibly could, they launched a sister organization, Women on Web, which equips women to safely induce abortions on their own. The site provides information on how to terminate a pregnancy using pills, in accordance with World Health Organization protocols. This initiative revolutionized the battle for bodily autonomy and provided women with the tools to take control of their own health. Gomperts continues to work every day towards a world in which more women are granted such basic rights, and she took the time to talk with the Frisky about filming a documentary on the ship, the face of modern activism, and the importance of standing up for what’s right.

The Frisky: Were you comfortable with having a documentary made right away or was it something that you had to be talked into?

Dr. Gomperts: No, because actually we had some earlier documentaries that were made. I think for us what is really important is that we have an understanding about women. First of all, the documentary makers are the people that do press because more often there’s press involved. They are not allowed to ask women themselves if they want to have an abortion. If [women seeking help with abortions] want to be interviewed or on film, we ask, but it’s very important that they understand that it’s not a requirement to be helped, so we are really sensitive to the privacy and the security of the women. I think that’s most important.

[Director Diana Whitten] was really wonderful with that, she’s been very respectful of everybody’s anonymity and privacy. It was interesting because she was a first-time filmmaker. So the other documentary, that was like — it was a current affairs program, it was by BBC – and so there was a very different way of working. I think what we really liked with working with Diana is that she was so flexible and so much there. She didn’t want to go write the story, everything that happened was fine and she just gave over to what came our way. That’s very different than for a lot of documentary filmmakers. She had so much time, she was so patient. I think a lot of very well-known or experienced documentaries, they are much more inclined to kind of make the story beforehand, so I think that’s also what makes her documentary so powerful and so amazing. It’s really something that was formed over the years instead of kind of a pre-set of ideas that we just had to adapt to some way or another. Even though the story itself is kind of obvious, she was able to make a documentary with a lot of surprises. It was a really good experience with her.

When the vessel docks, you’re often met with protests. A lot of the people protesting or giving you trouble were men, which I found interesting because they’ve never experienced childbirth or an unwanted pregnancy. Why do you think so many people drawn to the anti-abortion movement are people less directly impacted by abortion laws?

That’s a good question! I think that’s the case for a lot of things where people have strong opinions. I don’t think it’s necessarily only an issue that, you know, concerns abortion per se. I think a lot of people have ideas and preconceptions about things that if they were actually confronted with it or if they investigated it better, or would get better sources, they would change their ideas about it. I think that dogmas are very powerful, and of course, this is a dogma, this is something that religious groups have taken on as a kind of battleground. The people that are protesting are being mobilized for the religious agendas — for the fundamentalist religious agendas I want to say, because it has nothing to do with religion per se — but fundamentalist religious agendas. I think that’s what you see very clearly in the movie as well, that the protesting has nothing to do with compassion and nothing to do with empathy and nothing to do with humanity. They’re just dogmas and I think it’s always shocking to see when people are being guided by dogmas.

Yeah, that part was very disturbing and disappointing. It made me wonder whether there are other causes anti-abortion groups could put energy into that would prevent more unwanted pregnancies in the first place. Things like preventing rape or providing more contraception.

I agree. I have nothing to say against that! You would have to ask them why they don’t do that. I can understand that when people come from where they come from and they have such strong certainty that what they believe is the truth, I can understand that people can feel very passionate about it. I think my bottom line is that even if people feel that strongly for themselves, they never have a right to decide for other people, and that the difference between abortion rights people and anti-abortion rights groups is that we never impose our views on anybody but the anti-abortion groups do. They are imposing their views on others and I think that that is what is so bothering. I think that is so undemocratic and such an anti-human rights based approach. I think the fundamentals of our society are based on this respect for the other person’s freedom of decision, another person’s right to autonomy, another person’s right to privacy, so I find that attitude fundamentally undemocratic, basically.

Do you think societal attitudes about motherhood shaping a woman’s identity make it harder for women to get abortions?

It’s hard to say, because I do think that there is a very social-driven idea about the value of women, first of all, and of course motherhood is part of that. I don’t think actually that’s really making a difference for women because most of the women who have abortions are actually mothers with children. That’s half of the women who have abortions. I don’t think that being a mother or wanting to be a mother in the future is in any way influencing women’s decisions about a specific moment, about whether or not they can have a child at that moment in their lives. So I think these are very fundamentally different things, and motherhood by definition or the desire of motherhood is totally disconnected for me to the reality of women needing an abortion.

Another thing thing that stuck out to me in the film, especially with the all-female team on the vessel, was the concept of women helping women. What can women do on a small scale to help one another when it comes to reproductive rights?

I think that’s true, but I think what happens there is a little bit different. This cause consists of mainly women who are moved by it and motivated by it, so it selects the women from the activist community, more or less. And I think where we have been able to make a difference is the bold step of, “You know what, women can do this by themselves when they have the medicines.” You need the information, but the information is something everybody can share, it doesn’t have to be a doctor. It’s simple information, it’s not rocket science. I think that shift of taking a medical intervention that has been so controlled by the medical community and making that more of a public ownership has mobilized a lot of women and empowered them with this knowledge. It’s a very nice feeling to be able to actually really do something and not just protest, because that is where the status quo was before, when there was an unjust law or there were fights for legalized abortion. What people did is they went with the banner in front of the Parliament and they said “my body is mine.” And that’s very demotivating after a while, when you do that for ten years and nothing’s changing. Then suddenly you have these medicines and you can actually help women to get these — that really changes activism, totally. And I think that is what is so empowering about the movie as well, and about the way that we’ve been working. That’s something that we really saw also with the groups that we trained, where first it was some fear, like “Oh my God, we’re going to prison.” Then when you’re just addressing it in terms of “What are the legal possibilities? How would you address it? How would you do it? How would you stay within the law?” and working with lawyers, it was something that was unprecedented. Nobody would ever think that was actually something they could do and that really changed people. It makes them feel so good when there’s a woman that asks for help and you can actually help her.

The fear aspect was really striking, because in some moments in the film it seems so scary and even dangerous to be doing what you’re doing amid the protests and backlash. What keeps you going in those moments when things get so hard?

I don’t know about that, and I think that’s something that accounts for everybody that’s involved with the ship’s campaign, because you see a lot of people are involved and they are in exactly the same situation as I am (laughs) and they’re always coming back. So everybody on the ship’s campaign wants to do it again. So, nobody ever left like “Oh my God I’m too frightened for my life, I don’t want to do it anymore” and I think that is because in the end nothing really serious happens. I think that’s very important. I also think that the belief that what we do is right is so strong. I mean if we don’t do it anymore, it will be censorship, and when we start censoring ourselves in our society we lose our freedom. I think that all the people working with Women on Waves and Women on Web are of course extraordinary people, but in a sense, everybody’s extraordinary because, for example, we also have people in the help desk that didn’t start out as so-called activists but that became one because of the work. So the work itself also changes people and gives them more courage, because it’s so moving and it feels so right. People who are not kind of born activists, when they become involved with us, they change. But I think that’s something that is probably part of everything that people can do in their lives – that the moment that you can really make a difference changes your reality. I think that is also one of the problems of, for example, social media, where people are given a voice, or it seems like they are but it doesn’t really have — it’s just self-selecting a group of people that do the same things and think the same way as you do. I think to is fundamentally dis-empowering to only try to change things by saying what you think, because in the end that often doesn’t matter. What matters is what you do.

Watch “Vessel” here or find a screening here!