Brendan McGetrick
Recent works and current obsessions

Rebecca Gomperts, Activist

In June 2001, Rebecca Gomperts gained worldwide notoriety by sailing into Dublin on the world’s only floating abortion clinic. She was received by swarms of supporters, opponents, and the international media, who quickly labeled her the world’s leading “pro-choice extremist”. Gomperts and her group Women on Waves have since traveled to Portugal and Poland – countries, like Ireland, where abortion is illegal – each time being confronted by an overwhelming desire for their services, as well as new and more aggressive forms of resistance.

Committed to facilitating the forbidden, Women on Waves bases many of its actions in the gray areas of the law – in territories with loose regulations and new spaces that authorities have yet to define or police. Within the confines of a strategically positioned, medically equipped shipping container, they cultivate an alternate reality that, by virtue of the fact that it provides unheard of freedoms for some and unspeakable horrors for others, exerts external pressure on the assumptions that define our daily lives.

The work requires intelligence usually associated with the black market; it drives the group to be adaptive and opportunistic – like a hermit crab – to seek out and exploit new areas of ambiguity and potential freedom that appear and disappear as globalization undergoes its spasmodic development.

For the activist, the most important effect of globalization has been the creation of a vast, international audience of potential participants. To gain access to this audience and distinguish themselves amid the din of competing perspectives, movements across the ideological spectrum have embraced the virtual as a new, freer activist space.

In response to the lingering rigidity of the real world, the Web has become a 21st century Wild West, a space of extended freedom and risk, where recipes for over-the-counter, abortion-inducing chemical cocktails float in cyberspace alongside photos of mangled fetuses. Women on Waves, after having been prevented entry to Portugal by government warships, has migrated to virtual space – constructing a shelter against the pro-life onslaught, sponsoring art projects, and providing online abortion tutorials.

Against a backdrop of growing conservatism in Europe, I sat with Dr. Gomperts to discuss her experiences leading Women on Waves, the need for a more extreme left wing, the power of the virtual, and the uncertain future.

What is your take on the apparent rise in religious fundamentalism – in the US and Middle East, but also here in Europe?

Until now, European politics has been more or less determined by the Socialists. But the EU elections in June 2004 brought to power the first conservative religious majority in the European Parliament. The current President of the European Commission, [José Manuel] Barroso, is a Catholic Portugese who has allowed the prosecution of women who had abortions.

What we are seeing now is not really the beginning of a new political view, but the return of an old one. The disadvantage of progressive, liberal people is that we are not organized in the strict, hierarchical structure that the Church is. We lack a large, organizing base. The Catholic Church and other religious organizations have been able to, with a very long breath – because it’s a breath of thirty or forty years while the Socialists were in power – get back to a place where they can retake the power positions.

In that sense [religion’s role in politics] is interesting because [Pope John Paul II] supported Poland joining the EU. The Vatican is a member of the United Nations. They don’t have a voting right, but they are an extremely influential participant, lobbying and organizing debates. But the Vatican is not a country; it is a city of religious men. But its leaders participate in political organizations, because this is how they want to cause change; they want to be part of this larger union, because that’s the way that they can influence the processes that take place.

Considering this lack of an organizing base that you mentioned, what measures do you take to enlarge the base that supports your work?

In a sense, I think we align with all liberal, progressive movements, because in the end, [Women on Waves] is not about abortion, it is about respect for people’s individual choices and self-determination.

But the non-profit NGO world is very polarized: everyone is fighting for the same dimes, and the different issues get chopped up. “This is about this; that is about that”. Amnesty International won’t touch abortion, because they are afraid that they will lose funding from sources that they can otherwise get if they focus on other human rights issues. So it’s a very strange world to participate in, because it’s very divided.

Because every movement is in part a struggle to get funding, do you think that groups caricaturize themselves in order to be easily identifiable?

I don’t think that organizations do that themselves, I think the press does that. Because the complexities of an organization – the issues that they raise and the means that they use – are never fully represented in the press. My experience is that it’s very hard to communicate all these aspects to the press.

Do you consider that a negative thing?

I don’t, but you have to learn to work with it. I think that grasping the full complexity of all the issues is quite difficult. And in a sense the press has the obligation to help with that, so they do, but it’s sometimes frustrating.

In that sense, language is very interesting, because the ideas that are articulated in the media are sometimes not realistic – they are clear, but don’t hold up if you properly analyze them. If you look at some of the conservative arguments, they are very catchy and they play into fears. The problem is that one-liners always go down easier than the reality, which is often too complex for a one-liner. And that is a problem that progressive people have always had: they’ve needed more words to explain their status quo. And the one-liners are just easier for people to grasp.

As part of the Women on Waves project, you’ve collaborated with artists to create installations and merchandise. Are these experiments in developing messages with the clarity and simplicity of the one-liner?

It’s more as way of developing and extending our language – the language and communication tools that we have a women’s rights group.

One project that I noticed particularly was a series of t-shirts that said “I had an abortion” on them. For the undeniable clarity and impact of that kind of gesture, do you wonder if it is perhaps extreme and may actually undermine your intentions?

There is a very old theory that says if you have two extremes that are pushing issues, with a big mass of people moving side to side in the middle, and one end becomes less extreme, then the middle begins to move toward the other side. That is what happened in the US for a long time. The religious right has been very vocal and extreme – much more extreme than the left has been. That is also why the middle, the masses in the US, has moved very much to the right. That’s also what has happened here in Europe. We haven’t had a very radical, progressive movement for a long time.

Abortion is the most performed medical procedure; a lot of women have had abortions, yet people are still very secretive about it, it’s taboo. My opinion is that, as long as people are baring the shame and accepting this taboo, it is possible to keep [abortion] illegal, to suppress people and make it inaccessible. The moment that a woman comes out and says “I had one”, then another says “Oh, me too”. Then you get a strong movement. It’s about daring to show your face, not being ashamed or embarrassed about it. It is another way of creating change.

But what is extreme about it to you? Would it be extreme if you would wear a t-shirt that said, “I am gay”?

No, the difference is that for a lot of people, including women who’ve had an abortion and people who generally support reproductive rights, the act of having an abortion itself is not considered something to feel proud of or celebrate. To say “I’m gay” is to say…

I feel good about myself.

Yes, but there are a lot of women who’ve had abortions and men whose girlfriends have had abortions, and although they don’t regret the decision, they are certainly not happy that they had an abortion and it isn’t something that makes them feel good.

But it is a political statement; it is not a personal statement to [wear a shirt that says “I had an abortion”.]

Perhaps, but it is certainly an ambiguous line. Because abortion remains a deeply personal experience and issue. I’d imagine that you consider that part of the problem.

It is part of the problem. If it was a deeply personal issue, then we wouldn’t need to do what we’re doing. It has been politicized by making it illegal. And so, that means that the moment that you’ve had an abortion as a woman, you are connected to all the other women around the world, who don’t have access and who are being ostracized.

Do you ever imagine Women on Waves as potentially a tool of your opposition?

No, because we are too autonomous for that still. I do believe that there is a moment when you have to reconsider your strategies, but, in a sense, they make everything into a tool. That is something [anti-abortion groups] are very good at: everything that happens is used to serve their agenda. These are very rich organizations: they are very well organized, have a broad base, and a lot of money. Anything that happens concerning their issues they use as a tool – for instance, the woman in Florida [Terry Schiavo].

But the moment that you are able to invent new strategies to separate yourself from them, to be autonomous again and make new moves, then you are no longer their tool. And we are trying to do that all the time. But actually we don’t have any strategy towards [the anti-abortion movement]. We try to react as little as possible, because I think in reacting you also give them certain power over what you’re doing.

When you first debuted Women on Waves, there were articles that placed the project in a community made up of people who had ambitions to find legal and political loopholes, such as HavenCo – the company that turned an abandoned military platform in the North Sea into a haven for people wanting to store electronic files without government legislation.

I do relate to that. I am very interested in making new things happen by finding ways to do it within the existing legal limits. Because that for me is very challenging. Every time that we sail to countries that have different laws, you have to go through all the different scenarios: if I do that, what would the implication be on the laws there? For example, in Poland we could not say that we did abortions publicly. But we could say that we are not allowed to say that we did abortions.

The internet in that sense is a very powerful tool, and I think a lot of that kind of experimentation happens. If you look at copyright issues or, for example, the internet pharmacy: it all has to do with, on the one hand, governments trying to restrict access, and, on the other, people finding ways – legal, illegal, or unclear – to get access. You see it now here in the Netherlands with Doctors Online. They are now screaming, “Doctors shouldn’t be allowed to write prescriptions online anymore!” because a woman killed herself.

So, in a sense, I am very interested in these struggles. And our new project is totally about that. We’re developing a new plan, but it’s not public yet so I can’t say a lot about it, but it will be a new, ground-breaking project.

Boat related?

It’s not boat related this time. The boat will come again, but we want to first solve some of the legal issues from Portugal. What happened there is that, while we respect all the international laws and regulations, the Portuguese government hasn’t. And it has created a precedent that is really bad – bad for us, bad for other organizations – because it basically says that, if you do anything that I don’t like, I can use any means stop you, because you are a threat to national security. And that is a strategy that they took from Bush. We have to do something with this precedent, and so we’re in a legal struggle now.

Originally published in Intercommunication Magazine 53 (Summer 2006)
Photo by Willem Velthoven