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Thu Jan 1, 2015, 09:58 AM

Interview: Dr. Rebecca Gomperts, Who Brought Women Abortions By Sea

If you read Emily Bazelon's remarkable feature "The Dawn of the Post-Clinic Abortion" in the New York Times Magazine, you'll remember Dr. Rebecca Gomperts, the physician and activist who became internationally famous after sailing an "abortion ship" to countries where abortion remains illegal, providing (because the ship fell under the jurisdiction of its home country, the Netherlands) the miscarriage-inducing drugs mifepristone and misoprostol to women who were within the first trimester of their pregnancies, and thus circumventing the superficial regulations that contribute to 47,000 women dying of unsafe abortion each year.

A new documentary called VESSEL (to be released January 9 at IFC in NYC and January 13 on demand; watch the trailer here) chronicles Gomperts' work through the first years of her Women on Waves campaign as well as its evolution into Women on Web, an organization that provides abortion drugs to women by mail. Gomperts and I spoke on the phone last week.

Your work has spanned a lot more than the Women on Waves ship, but that's what people mostly know you for, right?

Yes. It was a very high-profile, media-intense campaign. It's the signature.

Does it feel strange to have that be your calling card, so to speak?

Of course, our work was and is much bigger than the ship. But all the work I've ever done, that my organization has ever done, has been in response to a need—and if this need can be addressed and represented by a symbol, I'm fine with it.

Symbols and images are very powerful ways to get a message through. The ship is about mythology as well: women taking power over the male domain of the sea. It's about defying laws without breaking them, and how that makes people so upset. The ship and the sea give a physical translation of the world we're working in.


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