From The Michael Slate Show

Interview with Diana Whitten, Director of the Film Vessel

June 22, 2015 | Revolution Newspaper |


The documentary film Vessel takes you onboard as the Women on Waves project takes to the seas to bring women the knowledge and tools to help them exercise the “most basic right” to control when and if they have children. The project was founded by a Dutch doctor who was appalled by the situation women faced in countries where abortion is illegal. She applied her experience on a Greenpeace ship to organize a crew of (mainly) women to outfit an onboard clinic to provide medical abortions to women on the high seas. A medical abortion is a safe non-surgical abortion in which drugs (Mifepristone and Misoprosto) are used to abort a fetus. The film itself explains the science and availability of the pills that are needed to safely medically abort. The following is an interview with Diana Whitten, director/producer of Vessel, on The Michael Slate Show on June 12.


Michael Slate: I have the privilege of talking to Diana Whitten, producer and director of the film Vessel. Diana, welcome to the show.

Diana Whitten: Thank you for having me.

Michael Slate: Tell us a little more about Dr. Gomperts, what she does and how she got into it.

Diana Whitten: Sure. So, she lives in the Netherlands, and she is an abortion provider by trade, and an artist. And in the year 2000, she came up with this idea that she could make use of this very interesting geopolitical construct called the “off-shore,” which traditionally, in most countries, is 12 miles off-shore. Once you hit that space in a ship, you answer to the laws of the country where that ship is registered. In the Netherlands, abortion is legal, so in off-shore waters, she can legally provide abortions on the ship, which she turns into a project that she called Women on Waves. So the project began as this ship that would sail to countries where abortion is illegal, where she could provide the abortion pills to poor women who needed help and couldn’t get help in countries where abortion was illegal. So, that’s what she designed.

Michael Slate: It was interesting, because when she started Women on Waves, she talked about seeing the ship as a symbol. Can you talk about that a little?

Diana Whitten: Sure, yeah. I mean, it is a symbol. To begin with, like she said in the trailer we just heard, “a symbol of freedom.” And she goes on in that quote to say that traditionally it’s been a male domain and here it is women occupying that symbol in a creative and refreshing and challenging way. And then as her project progressed over the years, the ship, everywhere it went, it encountered various antagonists that prevented it from accomplishing its goals; everything from religious protesters to governments. The government of Portugal, in 2004, sent two warships to stop the ship from coming into the Portuguese harbor. At that point in time, she decided to go on television, essentially, and instruct women, on this live television show, how to find a pill called Misoprostol, which was available over the counter, and how to take it themselves to induce abortion, in a protocol that has since been sanctioned by the World Health Organization. So in that sense, the ship became much more of a spectacle in itself in order to draw attention to the medical information that they could give by a hotline and website that people would know about because of the ship arriving in the harbor and being reported on and such. So, it’s a symbol in that sense, as well.

Michael Slate: You know, it’s interesting. Did you say it was Portugal where she actually turned the tables on what they thought was a full-scale assault on her and going to shut her up? Was it Portugal?

Diana Whitten: Yes

Michael Slate: That was so incredible because Portugal—I mean, the Portuguese assaulted them with battleships.

Diana Whitten: They were warships. And, you know, it accomplished the opposite of their goals, because whereas prior to that moment there had been some cracks [in media coverage] about the ship, as soon as there were warships stopping it from coming in, there were hundreds of international articles about it. So, it was a ballsy move on everyone’s part and it definitely was the first time that any organization had given information about self-inducing abortion directly to women. Normally, and globally, that’s something that always happens by a doctor and by a medical hierarchy. So, it was really the first time that someone said this is this information and it’s there for you to use, but you’re not going to be given the gold standard of medical care.

Michael Slate: Let’s step back a little bit further because when she first started this, she refers to the fact that she was in Greenpeace and that she was volunteering as a doctor in Greenpeace and she was basically moved, from what she saw around the world, to start concentrating on this question of abortion and being able to find a way to give women safe abortions.

Diana Whitten: That’s right. She described the experience of having grown up in the Netherlands which, similar to the United States, has had, up until recent years, Roe v. Wade protecting our access to abortion. The Netherlands is similar—in fact, more liberal with its laws. So, when she joined Greenpeace and started touring as a medic on board the Greenpeace ship, the Rainbow Warrior, a notorious ship in itself, she encountered for the first time what the realities for women were like who were living in countries where there was no legal access to abortion. It made such an impression on her that she knew she couldn’t proceed in the medical world without doing something about it.

Michael Slate: It was very moving because you did a really interesting thing with the film, because throughout the film you put up, you throw up some of the comments, some quotes from some of the letters and telegrams and things that she gets from some of the women around the world. And they were incredibly powerful. When you’re watching this and you’re getting this and you’re seeing this woman who’s daring to stand up and, you know, it’s so incredible because she’s full of energy and looks like somebody in Greenpeace, OK? And yet she’s standing up and just taking on the lion. It’s really incredibly inspiring.

Diana Whitten: Yeah, she’s a special person. She’s one of those charismatic leader types that comes around every so often and knows exactly what things to do. She was fun to film for that reason; a tornado of energy, for sure. Kept me on my toes filming her for seven years.

Michael Slate: Wait a minute; did you say, “filming her for seven years”?

Diana Whitten: Off and on. It was seven years to make the film, so two of those years we were editing and only doing pick-ups. It really was a long process. It was my first film so I really had to learn on the job, kind of, you know, how to do all the various elements of film production. But yeah, it was a learning process.

Michael Slate: It was your first film?

Diana Whitten: That’s correct.

Michael Slate: OK, Diana. You learned really well! That’s a hell of a film.

Diana Whitten: I had a lot of good help.

Michael Slate: One of the things I read about Dr. Gomperts was that basically she also had this enthusiasm, she had this drive, she had this vision, but she also tried to reach out and unite as many people as broadly as possible as she could for financing, for designing, for building it. That was a really important approach as the whole campaign developed, wasn’t it?

Diana Whitten: Yeah. I mean, I can speak to my own experience with that, which was that I met her, like we were just saying, before I had made a film. She saw something in me that I didn’t even know yet. Honestly, I mean, to entrust someone with their story the way she entrusted me with her story was a huge leap of faith. And I think that in that sense, in my experience, she does live her creed, which is to trust women. That could be extended to trust people. I think we see that in our best leaders when they really know how to delegate, basically, and know how to make their projects stronger by incorporating people that can bring new things. So that was my experience. Yep.

Michael Slate: The other thing that is really important, and I was just talking with those two young women earlier about the need to take on patriarchy and all of its forms and every way it shows up. And one of the things you showed very importantly and very sharply, was the rabid patriarchal misogyny that confronted this ship and confronted Dr. Gomperts everywhere she went. It was incredibly important that people see this actually in its vicious reality. I thought it was great that you were able to film that and present it in the way that you did.

Diana Whitten: Some of the places where I was present where we landed were extremely volatile situations, not in the sense that I felt my personal safety was at risk, but I do feel like maybe there's a certain amount of naïveté that goes into the protection of the camera. Like, I’m going to film you; maybe you won't hurt me. But I think Rebecca also thrives. There's a certain adrenaline that kicks in when you're faced with the anti-abortion forces. However, I will also add that the film, it was a “foreign story.” I thought it was about these other countries that had this sort of patriarchal violent approach to women's culture. And the surprise eight years later, it's become a local story. This is as much about our country as it is about anywhere else in the world. And quite frankly, our country is one of the most violent, if not the most violent country when it comes to how we view and treat our abortion providers and our clinics. Other countries don't bomb them and kill doctors. So it really put things into perspective when you start thinking about Texas.

Michael Slate: Very good point. And you think about the whole way that this comes down. That is the point about the patriarchy in this country and the need for people here to stand up and do something about this. It's a moral imperative facing men and women, the need to stand up and do something about this, to do the right thing about this.

Diana Whitten: I think especially with the reproductive rights movement. It's been on the defensive for so long, for good reason. But what was so refreshing for me about Women on Waves and Rebecca's work is that it's on the offensive. And it's just fueled by this refusal to self-censor or apologize for the “A” word or anything. It's very straightforward and direct, to the extent of having some fun with their work. You know, God forbid, helping women have access to safe health care should be fun. But the other thing that she offers, what I take away from their story, is to really think outside the box, and how you can do that, and be as creative as you can. Because what's more absurd than giving abortions on a ship? It's a completely ridiculous idea. And she made it work. So if that's a viable answer, then there are more absurd viable answers that you can have a lot of fun thinking of.

Michael Slate: And it's especially fun to be jamming that stake in the eye of the monster. Let's talk about one other thing here, too. You also document the transition—and I don’t know if you can call it a transition, because I read that they're continuing Women on Waves, but they also have Women on Web. Let's talk about what that is and where that came from.

Diana Whitten: So when the warships stopped them coming into Portugal, she went on television and gave information about Misoprostol, which in countries where abortion is illegal, Misoprostol is an anti-gastric ulcer medication that you can take over the counter to induce abortion. That's gone on to be codified by the World Health Organization and other international medical organizations as not the gold standard of abortion care, but a viable option if there's no other option.

Now, in our clinics, like Planned Parenthood and what not, if you have a medical abortion, they give you two pills. The second one is Misoprostol, and the first pill, which is the abortion pill, used together is well into 99 percent effectiveness, super safe.

So with that as background, when she went on the television show to give this information out, they started getting hundreds of emails, writing to them saying, well the ship's not coming to my country, can you help me get these pills? How do I get these pills? Can you send me these pills? And over the course of the next couple of years, a sister organization called Women on Web was developed, at which women from all over the world, anywhere where abortion is illegal, can write to Women on Web and request a medical abortion by mail. So they will either send the information or the actual pills. To date, the statistics that are in the film is over 100,000 emails were answered by Women on Web in 2012 alone. And it's just growing and growing.

They're not yet answering requests from women in the United States, because technically we still have Roe v. Wade, but now with over half the country living in a situation that's considered hostile to abortion, by a recent Guttmacher Institute study, it's not like we don't have the same need here as women do in countries where they don't have Roe v. Wade.

Michael Slate: One thing I was impressed with was when Rebecca Gomperts was asked about helping women in the U.S., she said something it's important for people to take seriously. She said, look, you have these laws that allow abortion to be legal, supposedly. And even though they're getting cut back, you still have this basic ground that you can work on. But she also said that people here have to stand up and do this themselves as well. I thought that was a really important point around what she's done. Everywhere she's gone, she's left behind a crew of people who become organizers and warriors themselves in relation to all this.

Diana Whitten: For sure. One of the original criticisms of her project was, you're bringing abortion to these countries, which is laughable, because abortion is as old as sex. So it was really more about her bringing energy to groups that are already working on the ground to make abortion more safe. You're exactly right. I sort of see it as like this ship's wake of energized activism and radicalized activists that can take lessons similar to the one I've taken from her, which is come up with something great. It was what I was attempting with the film itself, which is a piece of—I might call it art—designed to both mobilize audiences that see it but also serve as a Trojan horse for the same medical information that she's trying to spread around the world.

Michael Slate: I couldn't agree with you more. And it's a beautiful piece of art, and don't ever denigrate it. It has the ability to influence the way people think and to change things. I want people to realize something. There are over 22 million women living in restrictive countries who are forced to receive illegal and unsafe abortions. And out of those 22 million people, at least 47,000 die each year. This is an incredible crime that's being perpetrated against half of humanity. The dehumanization and the degradation of women that's concentrated in this is really intolerable and people do have to stand up against this.

Your film premiered in Texas, which I thought was great.

Diana Whitten: It was good for us because you could see the State House, the one where Wendy Davis gave her filibuster, from the theater where it premiered. So in terms of symbolism, it was a perfect place to be. It was our premiere and we came home with an audience award and a special jury citation. So it was a great way to start the trajectory of the film. It was also a lot of fun because we worked with a lot of activist groups on the ground to help us launch it, to get people into the audiences. It was a great partner-building opportunity for the film, too.

Michael Slate: It seems to be a struggle to get this film out into major theaters all across the country. It's something people have to not tolerate.

Diana Whitten: We had a theatrical release in New York City, and we had a limited theatrical run in San Francisco. And we are on iTunes and other video-on-demand platforms, and we're also on Netflix streaming in 30 countries, including ours. So it's had a good digital start, and we did have a bit of a theatrical run. But we're also in the midst of a screening campaign, which has been wonderful. And that's more based on our network of partners and activists, and anyone who would like to host a screening of the film can do so by writing to us at our website, which is And we'll walk you through and help you host a screening for any audience large or small.

Michael Slate: You made a comment once, that laws never prevent abortion. And it's linked up with this question of Trust Women. Laws never prevent abortion. Can you talk about that and then link it up to this whole question of Trust Women and why it's so important that that's on the cutting edge of things?

Diana Whitten: Yeah, laws don't prevent abortion. They never have. The only thing that laws prevent is safe abortion. So they're going to happen anyway. You see that specifically in the world. The number of abortions happening in countries where it's legal versus where it's illegal are the same. So you know that it's higher and it's not being reported. So it's really about keeping it safe. And I think in terms of connecting that idea of Trust Women, it's about the network, the information that's always passed between women in any capacity, whether it's whispered in a flea market or shared on blogs. It's just about increasing the knowledge about the possibilities to counter these people that want to stop it from being safe because of power issues or whatever. It's about working better at networking, and empowerment because of that.


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