In 1999, Dutch physician Rebecca Gomperts founded the Women on Waves organization, who are dedicated to providing abortion services to women in countries where abortions are illegal. The latest statistics from the World Health Organization estimate that 21.6 million women worldwide experience unsafe abortions every year, with 47,000 of those women dying from the procedure. Vessel is the result of first-time director Diana Whitten spending seven years documenting Gomperts' noble and dangerous crusade.
Following her time spent as a doctor aboard one of Greenpeace's vessels, where she was troubled by the lack of adequate birth control healthcare for women internationally, Gomperts cleverly devised a method to skirt the abortion laws of various countries. Using vessels outfitted with shipping containers converted into medical clinics, Women on Waves sails into different ports (the film shows us stops in Poland, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, and Morocco), picks up the women in need of help, and travels far enough offshore into international waters where the only abortion laws applicable are those of the country the ship is registered in (in this case it's the Netherlands, where abortion is legal). Once they're in legally safe territory, the organization doesn't perform surgical abortions, but facilitates pharmaceutical abortions that involve patients self-administering a pill that causes an early miscarriage, as well as providing counselling. Vessel also explores the expansion of Women on Waves into a global network via the launch of Women on Web, who also provide reproductive health information and support.
Despite efficient use of animated sequences delivering sobering statistics and the implementation of even more sobering calls and emails from distressed women in need of help, Gomperts' inspiring passion for her cause, as well as a charged subject matter that leads to some tense scenes involving the activist and her crew facing packs of aggressive media, police and military blockades, and angry demonstrators in the ports they visit, Vessel frustratingly fails to leave the impact it aspires to. The film doesn't really go down any unexpected paths and lacks the impartiality and weight of a superior documentary on the abortion issue I took in at Hot Docs in 2010, 12th & Delaware (read my review here).