Star of the documentary ‘Vessel’ speaks about abortion

Shining out to the audience and shedding new light on the controversial topic of abortion is the new documentary: Vessel.

On Nov. 23, for its first Calgary screening, Vessel was hosted at the Globe Cinema during the second CUFF.Docs. Film Festival, an up and coming annual event that showcases the best of international documentaries.

Brenda Lieberman, festival director and programmer says, “We loved having a film by women, for women, with a woman focus.”

The documentary takes you through the decade long struggles of Dr. Rebecca Gomperts and her team, as they try to bring abortion pills to women who want abortions in countries where it is illegal.

Lindsey Muir, one of the Calgarians to view the documentary says, “[Dr. Gomperts] does such important work. I got this resounding feeling of fearlessness. It must have been intimidating, so many of the protesters were large groups of men.”

Muir hopes that Gomperts’ work will continue to change “the staunch anti-abortion [movement].”

Reacting to having a controversial issue spotlighted at the film festival Lieberman says, “We try not to base our programming decisions off of our personal biases or politics within — I personally felt really connected to the film. I believe that women should have the choice, personally.”

According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 21.6 million unsafe abortions took place worldwide in 2008, almost all in developing countries.

In that same year a total of 44 million abortions were performed worldwide, and an estimated 47,000 women die each year due to unsafe abortions.Dr. Rebecca Gomperts during a Women on Waves campaign in Spain in 2008.

Photo courtesy of Kayla Keller

In the film, Gomperts talks about the many women who perform illegal abortions, and the thousands of women who die each year as a result. The film shows various emails Gomperts and her team received asking them for help. In some emails women asked if it was okay to use sticks, or drink bleach. And in others, women were afraid because they were raped, and weren’t permitted to have babies without being married.

Women on Waves, an organization that sails to various countries where abortion is illegal, was created in 1999. They take women onto a boat where they’ll admit them into the portable abortion clinic.

They then take the boat into international waters where it is legal to give them the “safe abortion” pill (misoprostol/cytotec). The clinic is from the Netherlands where abortion is legal. The film illustrates their political fights, and their many triumphs.

After the first Calgary screening of Vessel, a Q&A was held with the director of the film, Diana Whitten, “I didn’t realize how emotionally connected I would become to the work,” she says.

One woman in the audience said, “It was a wonderful film,” and then asked, “In North America where abortion is still a highly contested issue, how do you bring this to a North American context?”

Whitten responded by talking about how much the landscape has already changed since she began the film eight years ago. She said it is difficult to approach this issue on a massive scale and that it is “a case-by-case situation.”

Whitten also spoke of new ways they’re trying to get communities involved. “We’re doing a community screening program where any organization can host a screening of the film, and use it as an event for their own fundraising, or agendas, or education.”

In an interview Nov. 25 from her home in Amsterdam, Gomperts, creator of Women on Waves and star of the documentary, says, “The documentary does inspire people [and that] it doesn’t just show what we do. It does what we do [which is to raise awareness].”

The film shows footage of the 2004 Portugal campaign, where Portugal sent war ships to stop Women on Waves from entering their ports. It was only two years later that Portugal legalized abortion.

Gomperts says that Women on Waves never sails without a plan and that they only go to where they have been invited to by other women’s organizations in those countries. “There has to be something that we can really add to the situation there and can really change,” she says.

Inside the Globe Cinema during the night of the Calgarian Premier of Vessel.

Photo by Jessica BradyWhitten also said that they were always well prepared for the ship campaigns, and had security in place. “There’s no denying that the anti-choice movement is a violent one, especially in the United States. It’s one of the reasons why our efforts don’t work in the United States, because it’s so violent, and so litigious.” Gomperts says she didn’t know Women on Waves was going to be such a massive political movement and that “they suddenly realized the potential of this campaign. It was not just providing abortions — but catalyzing change.”

For Gomperts the goal was about helping women, and that remains the focus today.

“I think I would have never started Women on Waves if it was only an awareness campaign. It was a byproduct, absolutely, but the byproduct ended up being more powerful.”

Gomperts delves into her views on the controversial topic of abortion: “For some people this life or life-to-be has an equal meaning to a full grown woman’s life. For me it doesn’t.”

She also spoke about the understanding that abortion will continue to happen regardless if it is illegal, but that there are women dying from unsafe abortions.

“Abortion is one of the most performed medical procedures that exist. Medical abortion is safer than continuing with pregnancy and giving birth,” says Gomperts. “It is pregnancy that is actually dangerous for the woman, not the abortion. When you talk about the value of life I think that the value of the life of the woman prevails.”

“I have never been one of these people that doesn’t allow emotions and doubt to come into play. For me it isn’t about that or my own feelings. It’s about the fundamental respect for the position of the other person. I had an abortion and it was not an easy thing for me either.”

Gomperts had her abortion when she was in her 20s, and has since had two children. At one point in the documentary she was pregnant with one child, and described the feeling as being “delicious” when wanted.

Gomperts believes it’s time to normalize abortion and that it’s the only way to change laws. “It’s very important that women are breaking the taboo. As long as we are being so ashamed it won’t be legal.”

According to the Canadian Institute for Health Information, 83,708 abortions were performed in Canada during 2012. That’s a small amount compared to the 44 million worldwide in 2008.

“It was recently reported Canada is one of these countries that it is hard to get an abortion, and we know because we get emails from Canada,” says Gomperts. “There’s a lot of women there that have no way of getting to a clinic. Even though it is legal it is still difficult to gain access.”

Gomperts and her team also created Women on Web where women can order the pills directly, and they also set up hotlines across the world where women can access help, information, and resources 24 hours a day.

jbrady@cjournal.ca