One of the most powerful moments in Diana Whitten’s Vessel – a film full of them – is not the dramatic showdown with a Portuguese warship, or even the “occupation of the Virgin” when Ecuadorian activists dropped a banner with the safe abortion hotline number from the top of a towering statue, but a scene shortly after that exhilarating act of civil disobedience to launch the service: The cell phone which receives the hotline calls is switched back on after an hour and a half or so, and starts to beep. And beep. And beep some more. Message after message after message asking for help – just a few hours after the number was first made public, just the ones who happened to be facing an unwanted pregnancy when Women on Waves came to Ecuador.
Vessel is the story of Dr Rebecca Gomperts and the extraordinary acts of bravery that she and her fellow Women on Waves and Women on Web activists commit every day to help women have safe medical abortions, but its message is about the number of those beeps. Whether or not abortion is legal, whether or not it’s safe, or taboo, or vilified, people everywhere, everyday, will find themselves pregnant when they do not want to be, and will try to find a way not to be. And if safe, legal methods aren’t available, they will resort to others, resulting in a death every ten minutes, somewhere in the world, because of an unsafe abortion. Vessel relays this sobering fact, and other details that put Rebecca’s work into context, in beautiful animations (by Emily Hubley) that deserve their own platform as hugely powerful education tools.
Women on Waves are known for providing abortions aboard boats just off the coast of countries where they are not legally available, but from the beginning, it has been as much about messages as it has been about misoprostol. Their first trip, to Ireland, inadvertently cemented the importance of their advocacy function when a licensing delay prevented them from actually providing any terminations, further amplifying the already keen press attention. Later, in Portugal, it was another unexpected legal hurdle which precipitated an impromptu strategy shift, which Rebecca decides alone and acts upon in a dramatic television appearance, with all the tension, frustration and urgency neatly conveyed by the film’s deft combination of narrative and action sequences.
What Rebecca went on Portugese television to say was that if you are nine weeks pregnant or less, and have someone to help you if you need it, you can safely terminate a pregnancy, with a 90% success rate, using a drug available in many countries and commonly prescribed for heavy post-partum bleeding, misoprostol, sometimes known as Cytotec. You will need twelve 200 microgram pills, to dissolve under the tongue four at a time for 30 minutes (and then spit out the residue) at 3 hour intervals.
At the Vessel screening I attended, as part of the DOC NYC festival (http://www.docnyc.net), she told us in the audience Q&A that the best thing we can do to support Women on Waves (and their sister organisation Women on Web, who send pills to women who can’t access them, the advent of which makes up the hopeful coda to the film) is share this information, and the variety of resources available on their website www.womenonweb.org, particularly in languages other than English.
If there is any criticism to be made of Vessel, it’s that it barely hints at the threats to abortion access in countries where it is ostensibly legal, like the United States. In the Q&A we learned that Women on Web receive calls from the US roughly twice a day. But given that the film winds down with Rebecca and her team training a network of community advisors to improve access to medical abortion in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a context where the magnitude of the need is unimaginable, Vessel and the activists it introduces us to can be forgiven for focusing on the tremendous challenge of facilitating abortion access where it is wholly illegal. We can face the prospect of it being eroded closer to home with the inspiration of Rebecca’s determination to “trust women” (the echo of Dr Tiller’s adage a sobering reminder of the risks she faces in doing so), and the comfort that on the high seas and the Internet, Women onWave’s pro-choice pirates are there to help. As they reassured a woman whose emails were woven into the animation, describing her fear and isolation as she took the contraband pills alone in a hotel room, you can always send them a message if you need to.
Abortion Rights Executive Committee Member
Find out work about women on the wave here
Vessel is now available buy on itunes