Women on Waves: Meet the Dutch Physician Who Defied Abortion Bans by Bringing Her Clinic to the Sea

January 15, 2015


Diana Whitten

director of the film Vessel. Learn more about the film at

Rebecca Gomperts

Dutch doctor who founded Women on Waves and set sail around the world to provide safe abortion services in international waters off the coast of countries where abortion is illegal. More recently, she founded Women on Web, an online support service that helps women obtain and safely take medications to induce abortion.

As Republicans in the new Congress and in state legislatures across the United States seek new restrictions on abortion, we look at the story of a Dutch doctor who has brought safe abortion to countries around the world where it is illegal. The new documentary "Vessel" follows Dr. Rebecca Gomperts, founder of Women on Waves, who set sail on a ship to provide abortions in international waters, where a country’s bans do not apply. Gomperts later founded Women on Web, an online support service that helps women obtain and safely take medications to induce abortion. We speak with Gomperts and "Vessel" director Diana Whitten.

Click here to watch Part 2 of this interview.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: The new U.S. Congress opened last week with the largest Republican majority in the House since the 1940s. Within a few days, lawmakers in both congressional chambers had already introduced five bills to restrict abortion access, including a ban on abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy. At the state level, Republicans have taken control of a historic number of legislative chambers and announced efforts to roll back abortion access and cut funding for women’s health. Amidst an unprecedented wave of state-level restrictions, the group NARAL Pro-Choice America has released its report card on women’s reproductive rights. It gave the United States a D.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to a new film that looks at how a Dutch doctor managed to open access to safe abortion in countries where it’s illegal. The film is called Vessel. It follows Dr. Rebecca Gomperts, who founded Women on Waves and set sail on a ship to provide abortions in international waters where a country’s abortion bans don’t apply. As they sailed from port to port, Women on Waves faced both deep gratitude from women seeking abortions and aggressive attempts to stop them.

In this trailer, you hear some of the anti-choice protesters who gathered at ports in countries like Poland, where they chanted, "Welcome, Nazis," at Women on Waves, and Spain, where opponents actually used a rope to try to tow the group’s vessel out to sea. But first you hear the voice of Dr. Rebecca Gomperts.

DR. REBECCA GOMPERTS: It all started when I was working as a ship’s doctor in countries where abortion was illegal. I had seen a lot of women brought in because of illegal abortions. I could not observe that and just let it happen. So we built a mobile clinic so we could sail to international waters and legally help women with safe abortions.

To the harbor!

We are here in solidarity with women who have been denied their human rights.

[translated] The police will come. Let people board the ship!

CROWD: Welcome, Nazis! Welcome, Nazis!

DR. REBECCA GOMPERTS: The issue is: Do women have really a basic human right to be able to decide what is happening with their own bodies?

This ship is a symbol of freedom, has always been.

It’s so clear, if you speak to women, what is really at stake, and what’s happening and why.

WOMAN: [translated] I am scared I will die. Can you really help me?

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now from Amsterdam by Rebecca Gomperts, the Dutch doctor who founded Women on Waves and, more recently, founded Women on Web, an online support service that helps women obtain and safely take medications to induce abortion.

And Diana Whitten joins us here in New York. She is director of Vessel, which has been showing here in New York at the IFC and at community screenings around the world. It’s also on sale on iTunes. And she’s worked on this for, what, seven years.

Tell us the premise of Vessel. It’s an astounding story.

DIANA WHITTEN: Well, Vessel follows Rebecca’s work over the past 10 years, basically—13 years, from this wild idea that she had to use the offshore space construct to give abortions on a ship at sea. And it traces the evolution of their organization and all of the antagonists that came its way that they alchemized to strengthen the project and make it the sustainable organization that it is today.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Dr. Rebecca Gomperts, can you talk to us about that? Tell us how you came to learn that abortions on international waters would make abortions legal, even for people from countries where abortion is illegal.

DR. REBECCA GOMPERTS: Thank you so much, Amy. At the time, I was a ship’s doctor at Greenpeace at Rainbow Warrior, and we were sailing to South America, and it were environmental issues that we were working on. And when I was there, I talked with doctors and women about abortion, because I was being trained as an abortion provider, as well. And it was actually these stories that I shared then with the crew. And then the crew said, you know, if you have a ship, you could take these women into international waters, which is 12 miles offshore, and you could help them with a safe abortion if the ship is registered under Dutch flag. So, it was the idea of the crew at that time, with the crew that I sailed with, Greenpeace. And I decided to investigate it, because I thought it was a very interesting idea. And so, that is how it started.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to what happened when Women on Waves tried to sail to Portugal and warships were sent out to meet you. This is Rebecca Gomperts in the film Vessel.

DR. REBECCA GOMPERTS: When the ship was on its way, I was already in Portugal. In the middle of the night, I got a phone call from the ship’s captain that the Portuguese government had sent two warships to stop the ship from sailing into international water.

PORTUGUESE NAVAL CREW: That is Portuguese warship Borgia, Figueira da Foz. What are your intentions concerning your nav plan? Over.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s a Portuguese warship demanding the navigational plans of the Women on Waves ship. Dr. Gomperts, talk about what happened in Portugal.

DR. REBECCA GOMPERTS: Well, when the ship was on its way to Portugal, the minister of defense, who was a fundamentalist religious, right-wing minister, he claimed that the ship was violating the security of the state of Portugal, and he sent a fax to the ship that they were not allowed to enter the port. And at the same time, they sent warships to prevent the ship from sailing in. So, it was interesting because—in that, you know, it was so unprecedented, because it’s a European ship, and Europe has all these agreements that you cannot just block the ship of a friendly nation to enter your ports. So, it became an enormous scandal. The European Union, there were debates in the European Union. The Dutch minister of foreign affairs had to intervene.

And, well, in the end, it didn’t solve the situation, because the ship couldn’t sail in. But we challenged this decision of the Portuguese minister of defense in the European Court of Human Rights, and we won that case. So, it has been rectified in the end. But I think what was interesting as a result of this action of the minister of defense is that there was such an enormous debate in Portugal, and one of the results of this was that the Portuguese government fell. And the most important issue on the new elections that were taking place two or three months later was the legalization of abortion, and abortion was legalized in two years after that. So, I think it had an enormous impact, because it totally—it showed so clearly that the Portuguese people had a very different opinion on whether women or not can have access to safe abortions.

AMY GOODMAN: And this is a clip of Women on Waves’ first trip, the one that you took to Ireland. Again, this is Dr. Rebecca Gomperts responding to a question from a reporter who asked if she had ever had an abortion herself.

REPORTER: ... as a personal experience of what it’s—

DR. REBECCA GOMPERTS: You know, don’t try—no, don’t try—it’s too easy. All these hundreds of people that are involved, they are all doing this with their hearts and not because they had an abortion. I mean, are you going to ask somebody working for Amnesty International whether they have been tortured? Come on, that’s not the issue. The issue is: Do women have really a basic human right to be able to decide what is happening with their own bodies?

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Gomperts, later in the film you actually reveal on a Portuguese talk show that you did have an abortion and that, in fact, at that time on the talk show you were pregnant. Can you talk about the decision to speak out about your own experience, about your abortions, and also about your children?

DR. REBECCA GOMPERTS: Well, I think that one of the main reasons why abortion is still so restricted is because of the enormous taboo and shame that comes with it. So, I think that coming out is a very important part of the struggle to legalize abortion and to, let’s say, to normalize it, because abortion is a very common event. I think one in five women in the Netherlands has an abortion, and the Netherlands has one of the lowest abortion rates in the world.

So, I think that for me what was the problem at the moment that this question was asked in Ireland was that it was the first campaign, it was very tense, and I thought it was not fair to just—to diminish an effort like that of so many people to a kind of psychologizing it, like, "Oh, she had an abortion, that’s why she did it," because, you know, like me, there’s a lot of other women that have had abortions in their lives, and I wish that all of these would have become abortion rights advocates.

At the moment in the talk show in Portugal, something else was the matter. I had done something quite extreme. I had shown to the public how women can do an abortion themselves with the medicines Cytotec, not misoprostol. And at that moment, there was this man from the anti-abortion rights—man that was attacking me. And I don’t know. I mean, a lot of these decisions are intuition. It’s not like, you know, I planned this ahead. But I think at that point it was a very good moment because it also kind of neutralized the very outspoken act of actually putting abortion in the hands of women themselves, which I had done just before, by explaining how they can use these medicines.

AMY GOODMAN: Diana Whitten, we only have a minute. You’ve done this remarkable film called Vessel. Can you talk about the use of these two pills—I don’t think that many people in the U.S. know about them as a use for abortion—and how they’re used in the United States?

DIANA WHITTEN: In the United States, medical abortion is offered in Planned Parenthood and other health clinics, so it is an option here in the States. It’s a two-pill regimen that’s most highly effective. In most of the world where abortion is illegal, the second pill can be used on its own to induce abortion.

AMY GOODMAN: And that pill is?

DIANA WHITTEN: That pill is called misoprostol. And one of the things that Vessel does is contextualize that pill and give it some global context. It also—the film serves as a bit of a Trojan horse for information about how to find and take that pill, similarly to what Rebecca was referring to when she went on Portuguese television. The film has a segment where we describe the pill, and it shows providers and women around the world using that pill.

AMY GOODMAN: And Women on Web is providing that information. Quite astounding, it used to be that women from Mexico would come up to the United States to get an abortion in Texas; now women in the United States are going to Mexico to get the pill?

DIANA WHITTEN: Correct, that’s right. Yeah, the landscape has changed so dramatically here in the past few years.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to continue this conversation and post it online at It is a remarkable film. It’s called Vessel. Diana Whitten is the director. You can find out more about the film and how to host a community screening at Rebecca Gomperts has been our guest from Amsterdam, a Dutch doctor who founded Women on Waves and Women on Web.

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