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If it's not illegal, then we can do it...

Dec 04, 2014

For this blog post -- transcribed from a recorded conversation in 2011 at Slought -- Dr. Rebecca Gomperts speaks with Aaron Levy and Eduardo Cadava about women's reproductive rights and strategies of individual and collective empowerment. In 1999 she founded Women on Waves, a non-profit with a floating reproductive health clinic and national hotlines that provides abortion pills safely and legally outside territorial waters of countries where abortion is illegal. Gomperts emphasizes the importance of finding loopholes that enable people to take charge of their lives and their health.

Cadava is Professor of English at Princeton University, where he also is affiliated with the...

Levy works with artists, communities, and institutions to develop cultural projects that...


Aaron Levy: To begin, would you say you have something like a practice? Or would you say you your work takes the form more of an ongoing negotiation?

Rebecca Gomperts: No, I don't have a practice. Women on Waves started ten years ago. Since we started it, how we think about people's ability to control their lives has changed dramatically. It's really about engaging with groups and individuals in a way that they feel empowers them, so that they and that other people start taking responsibility in doing things. It's a do-it-yourself culture.

But that means breaking down power structures and breaking down comfortability zones. For example, we need to talk about medical abortion which is typically the domain of the medical professionals. The idea that women can do it themselves is something that a lot of people are opposed to, because it takes away, first of all, the medical control. It stalls all these ideas about danger, and about people not being capable of making decisions for themselves. Everything which is happening in our society is basically something you can bring back to this: Do you respect and trust other people to make decisions about their lives and themselves?

A large part of our society has the mentality that you have to protect people against themselves. Whether it concerns decisions about pregnancy or about euthanasia or drugs, whether it concerns voting behavior or freedom of expression, or even all these things, I find it extremely fascinating. And this has had an effect on how people view themselves, especially here in US. People go to the doctor for everything, for smallest little thing, because they are afraid of the idea that they could think for themselves, and about whether it might be serious or not. This authority has been delegated – whether it's to lawyers, whether it's to doctors, or whether it's to politicians. The authority of others to decide for us is now fundamentally ingrained in our culture and I think that changing that is the work that we're doing.

And how do you facilitate this transformation? Is it something that happens immediately overnight? Is it a gradual process?

Well, I think that a lot of people are looking for this transformation, but there's not much out there that is facilitating it and giving people the tools to do it themselves. For me, and for Women on Waves and Women on Web, it's about finding forms of empowerment – especially by working with youth groups and young activist kids that are already used to demonstrating. The idea that you can actually can do subversive activities yourself in order to change the broader aspects of your society — that is what Women on Waves does when it's training and working with local women's groups. We are also giving them the trust and the knowledge so that they can actually do it themselves.

One of the things we've been doing over the last few years – and this is not at all about the ship, or at least it is different from what the ship does - is suddenly giving a voice to the local groups that are never heard before. When you're talking about the abortion debate, for example, the older, well-established feminists or doctors often have a voice in the media, and everybody calls these same people each time. Suddenly there's these young women's youth groups that have organized the campaign for the ship locally, and they're suddenly spokespersons in the press. They have presence and a voice, and suddenly women that need abortions hear a voice which is never heard before as well. The ship is also a strategy that empowers them. We give them media training about how to deal with the press. So there's a lot of information training and education and also the opportunity to just let them do it.

With the hotlines that we've created in South America and in Pakistan and Indonesia and other places, we train youth groups in how they can give women information about a pill that women can use themselves to induce abortion. The pill is available in all pharmacies, it's called Misoprostol. But nobody knows about it. There's a knowledge gap because doctors won't share what they know. They protect their knowledge because it's a way of maintaining power, and it's about income. Sometimes they don't even think about it. So we are breaking through that barrier of knowledge and we're saying, "Okay, this is how we do it, this is how simple it is, this is how safe it is, and you can share that information with others." We train them, and we teach them how to talk on the phone to other women, because they shouldn't be breaking any laws.

The point that we are at now is, "How can we expand it to other domains?" I think we've been really very effective, and we've slowly started to expand our work to other domains. The question is, how can people take charge of their own lives and do the things that they need to do to protect their lives, or to get access to things that they need?

Can you say a little more about this idea of expanding into other domains? Is it a question of how can you scale your work and impact?

No, the scaling up has already happened through the hotlines and the internet. Women on Web is sending medicine to women in countries where abortions are illegal, so that the women can take the pill at home, and then there's the help desk that is helping women.

What I mean by expanding is something more like this: heavy bleeding after giving birth is one of the main causes of deaths of women in the developing world. And that can be easily be prevented by taking three tablets immediately after giving birth. This is the same medicine used throughout the world. I'm now looking at other possibilities of expansion, mostly involving in-house pills or women's rights.

Am I correct that you trained in part as an artist many years ago?

Yeah, I went to art school and trained as an artist.

Not to be reductive about it, but do you think of Women on Waves as related to your earlier training as an artist?

It's not to say that Women on Waves wouldn't have happened without my art background, but the trans-disciplinary approach is making it all the more effective as a project.

There's also a lot of ways in which art has played a role in the creative fundraising for the project. The first funding we got was from a Dutch art foundation who helped fund the clinic that was designed by Atelier Van Lieshout.

The project is also about the sea, about NGO organizations, women's' groups, women's rights, the law, medicine, the internet, and media. So you know, it taps on and draws in all these different domains and disciplines.

How do you define your role and your position? Is this a work in the artistic sense? It's not necessarily an NGO, at least in the typical sense....

My role? Well, I don't know. It's hard to say.

Because your role has or is continually changing?

My role changed over the last five years. I started it, working mostly alone. Now there's a lot of other people involved that are much more on the organizational and managerial side of things.

Personally, I am very good at finding loopholes. I used to say "I'm very interested in making the impossible possible," because in a sense Women on Waves was an impossible project and Women on Web was as well. All the lawyers I talk to here said it was not possible. But we asked the right questions, like, "okay, that is not possible, but if you would do it this way, that would be..." Or "It's not quite legal, but it's not illegal, and if it's not illegal then we can do it."

I really enjoy finding these spaces.... and I think that's my role. My role is to make it happen, but when I can't, it's about making it happen in a more modest way, because it cannot happen without a gynecologist saying, "Yeah, that's a great idea, I'm going to help you," or a captain that says "Okay, come, and I won't charge you anything." It's about all the volunteers that are not paid but find it important, and they see the importance of it... So it's, you know, about organization as well.

But it's not me organizing it, it's the topic itself, which a lot of people feel is very important. It's the autonomy and self determination, issues which are very close to some people. The lawyers work for free, the ships' crew works for free, the gynecologist works for free -- there's so many things that make things like this possible.

I want to return to my earlier questions concerning how you identify your practice, and the methodologies you employ. Do you identify as an activist? Or would activism not be the right word either?

I don't know. The problem with these kinds of words is what does it mean, what do you mean? Activist means to act, right? Yes, I am somebody who acts upon something that I find or discover or see, and the problems that I identify. But it's not the only thing I do. I reflect, I research, I think. That's part of activism too.

This is also the mentality of the people that are involved in Women on Waves and Women on Web. There are a lot of them, all over the world, and they're working together. One of the other strengths of this organization is that it's very flat, and there's no hierarchy. Everybody takes on responsibilities and tasks. They stay engaged because they don't feel anybody's sitting around and watching them. They are all working together to make something possible, and to support women in the world, to do something to help other people.

Once a year, or twice a year, we have meetings where we fly in all the people who are working together, because it's very important and moving to see how dedicated they are. With Women on Web, there has been a lot of problems; there's a lot of obstacles with Women on Waves as well. You have to constantly push, push, push, and go further. There is so much energy in the whole community around the world. And I mean amazing energy amongst the young kids that we work with like in South America, in Pakistan, and in Indonesia, for instance. It gives me such hope, the courage they have to just defy all of these cultural norms and work on what they believe is important. We just hand them a tool, the tool they needed to start building it, and they start working on it.

And the tool is knowledge?

The tool is strategy and knowledge. The tool is a strategy like the hotlines, or access to knowledge about the pills. The tool is perhaps just making people understand that it isn't a doctor that needs to do it, and that we can, anybody can. It is also about handing the tool over to others, to see what happens with it, what can be built out of it by others, and it's incredible.

Can we talk more about the ship? What is the role of the ship in relation to what you are speaking about here...

The ship is a catalyzer and it is also a tool. The ship is only going to countries on the invitation of local organizations. It's a moment around which these groups organize and mobilize. It also makes them visible to the press, because they are the local spokespersons, and they are the ones that do it. These groups also have to connect with all the other organizations, so the ship catalyzes this moment, generates all this attention, and brings out the press. The ship can create a kind of shift in public opinion. It's a tool to address public opinion and public awareness.

Earlier, I was speaking more about groups and individuals that wanna change the world, that wanna do something, that wanna change their own realities and the realities of other people. The ship is about changing public opinion and public awareness, and sometimes that needs to change as well. In Portugal, abortion was legalized as a result of our campaign; in other countries, like in Poland, there is a change in public awareness and a push for a legal change, but social disparities and political realities are preventing a vote in the parliament. So the ship can create a catalyzing moment, but there's all of these other political realities that are playing a role. Political or societal change is more often happening from the top down. Our training, hotlines, and website is about building a structure from the bottom up. These are very different approaches.

I have a somewhat different question. How do you negotiate cultural difference?

Well, I must say, I haven't encountered it as much.

Though in Pakistan there's all kinds of small differences, especially when you talk about abortion. What happens when we go to Africa is that you can't mention the word abortion. If you mention abortion everybody will freak out, and nobody's going to feel comfortable anymore during the training. So we are thinking about all these other words to use. But then, when we're there, what happens is that we start talking about abortion, of course, because that's what we do, and everybody is so relieved. Finally, somebody is talking about abortion! You know, most of the people we are working with have very basic similar realities. I think the fundamental emotional exchange is very similar everywhere.

But that might be because we have already learned how to cope with cultural differences. The difference's that are there, they will stay. That's something that I'm always very aware of. That is why it's the local groups that are setting the boundaries and that set the rules of the game. What we do is we push them and say, "Well, is this really true, or is this self-censorship? What's going on?" What we can do, because we are not from there, is question the things they have done, and the boundaries that they have implemented on themselves. And that is something that happens all the time. They say, "You can't do this," and then, you know, we say, "You know, we can really do it," and we try.

For example, in Ecuador, when we were launching the hotline, I proposed to hang a banner from the Virgin of Quito and everybody was, "No, no, no, you can't do that, it's impossible, you'll go to jail over it." Everybody was really nervous, but they got very excited about the idea as well. I said, "What else can you propose if this won't work?" And you know, we were safer with this approach, and nothing happened! There was the foreign press, and we were there to help, and everything else. You can help people to gaining the confidence to cross boundaries.

The same happened in Pakistan. All the old organizations, they said that if you have a press conference, you should never mention the word abortion. "This will create too much..." And we said, "Yeah, but that doesn't make sense, why would you give a press conference if you can't talk about abortion?" And then, one of the girls said, "Yeah, I'm going to talk about abortion." And she did, this Pakistani girl, and nothing happened. People were okay with it, and I think this internalized self-censorship is perhaps the most dangerous thing in this world. In a sense, it's also a kind of inhibition to question what we can actually do, how much we can do. This censorship restricts our courage and the do-it-yourself mentality...

Perhaps we could include your extraordinary skill in negotiating with and using the media as one of your practices and methodologies. I'm interested in whether you find it difficult to communicate with the media with subtlety? Also, earlier you spoke about how the ship is not just a ship, it is also a catalyst. Is that something you feel like you've been able to communicate to the media?

No, I don't ever express that. The ship is out to do abortions, period. That's what they're interested in. You know, I have a very devolved feeling about the media.

There are some things I am well aware of, the first being that the project succeeded because of the interest of the media, even before there was a project. The first time there was media coverage, there wasn't even an organization, it was just an idea. Yet it was already front page news in the International Herald Tribune. Why was anybody interested? Because I was young? Because I was a woman?

I was really afraid of the media, and of course the writing is often incorrect and very sloppy. But it doesn't matter, because what I learned in the end, is that it doesn't matter what they write as long they write about it. I saw it that I was being used in order to voice a certain issue. So I learned that it's not about me - it's really not about me. I needed to have a personal story, because that's how the media works.

This last year, I haven't done any media interviews. I don't feel this internal need to be in the media, and I find it stressful and disturbing sometimes. And it's weird because it changes other people's perceptions of you. People know me from the media, so the way they engage with me is not anymore as me, but as somebody who is well known in the media. It produces this kind of strange division between private and public life which is sometimes upsetting.

Not to insist on the question, but why, when interviewed by a journalist, wouldn't you explain that the ship is a catalyst?

I say that we can never help as many women as need it, and the ship can only be there for some time. So what the ship does is raise awareness. I do talk about that. But they are always interested in, "How many women a year do you help?" But you know it's not about numbers.

You mean they're interested in measurable outcomes, and you want to think more broadly about...

We never say that we do abortions. But the controversy is always "How many women get an abortion on the ship?" That is the news value. When we were in Poland, the news story was "5 abortion pills missing from the ship!"

There are really good journalists that are really interested in the background story, and that go deeper and do research. It's wonderful to work with them. But most of the media is about sound bytes, about quotes, and quick articles.

Do you have a plan for the next ten years, or do you act more in an artistic vein, which is to say, more ad-hoc? Do you think strategically about where you want to be?

Women on Waves has been going on for the last ten years. It's been an enormous undertaking, moving forward project by project. We knew we wanted to go to certain countries, which could happen in one or two years depending on how quickly we could get the funding. But to think beyond that was really not very possible given our resources. Then there was this idea for Women on Web. And so it was started, with all the problems that came with it and had to be solved. Women on Web is now really our long-term thing.

Hotlines are always part of the campaigns of the ship. The women have to make an appointment to come to the ship, so there always is this big banner on the ship with the telephone number. In Portugal, we continued to function that way there until abortion was legalized.

But it was not a separate project as such until a field project in Ecuador. Women on Waves wanted to campaign in Ecuador, and so we bought a ship in Costa Rica and we sailed over to Ecuador. Then the first tropical storm hit and the ship landed on the beach. That was about eight weeks before we were supposed to do the campaign! The only thing that was ready was the hotline, so we thought, we can do something with the hotline on it's own, actually. This whole hotline project, which has been very, very successful - there's now hotlines in Chile, in Peru, in Argentina, in Ecuador, in Pakistan, and in Indonesia - they came to us as a solution to a problem. It is very important to try to shift your failures into something productive. It wasn't a strategy that we had thought of before, but it became one of the main strategies for Women on Waves, and a very successful one.

Released in conjunction with Abortion on the high seas, a conversation on January 21, 2015 about abortion rights, international law and filmmaking. Transcribed and edited by Dylan Brown.