Vessel: Past Land, Past Law, Past Permission

This month the powerful documentary “Vessel” opened in New York City and was released on iTunes and Vimeo. This film is a huge inspiration for women rights activists and we are so excited to spread the word!

Vessel tells the story of Dr. Rebecca Gomperts, who as a young doctor was horrified by the realities created by anti-abortion laws around the world. Feeling compelled to challenge and change these laws that kept women from having the right to determine their futures, Gromperts created “Women on Waves” in 1999 to provide “medical” – meaning “abortion pill” – abortions themselves.

“Women on Waves, founded in 1999, aims to prevent unsafe abortions and empower women to exercise their human rights to physical and mental autonomy. We trust that women can do a medical abortion themselves and make sure that women have access to medical abortion and information through innovative strategies. But ultimately it is about giving women the tools to resist repressive cultures and laws. Not every woman has the possibility to be a public activist but there are things we can all do ourselves.” –

What makes “Women on Waves” possible is the waves part. Meaning, boats floating freely, providing sanctuary for women to obtain RU 486 that would otherwise be illegal in their home countries.

Film Director Diana Whitten explains these how these spaces work, “Twelve miles offshore, if a country has signed the United Nations Convention of the Laws of the Sea, jurisdiction over any vessel, any ship, in that space lies with the country where that vessel is registered. So, for instance, in our case, in the Netherlands, abortion is legal, so a ship in offshore waters, outside of the jurisdiction of a country, answers to the jurisdiction of the Netherlands. So it’s basically a floating body of isolated jurisdiction at sea”.

Women on Waves (WoW) provides an amazing service by helping women access a clinic and/or abortion options but beyond that provides resources and information through the internet and safe telephone hotlines, so that women who are without support can speak to someone who cares about their health and can help. For instance, one great tool they offer is the “Low literacy safe-abortion infographic” offered in English, Swahili, Spanish, French, Polish, Bahasa (Indonesia), Haitian Creole and Arabic. This information explains how to take the abortion pill and also helps women understand the symptoms they may experience.

The tag line of the film is, “Past land, past law, past permission”, and this obviously speaks to the tremendous amount of courage and agency that Dr. Gomperts demonstrates but also to what the reproductive health and women’s rights movement needs more of: the bravery and passion to act and not allow violations of human rights to continue.