Something that sounds fake, but is not: There is a group of women who sail a boat around the world performing abortions for women who live in countries where the procedure is outlawed.
Upon completing her training as an abortion doctor, Rebecca Gomperts worked on Greenpeace’s ship, the Rainbow Warrior II. For those who don’t know, the Rainbow Warrior II helped bring an end to nuclear testing in the Pacific, block coal ports, and close down certain harmful fishing operations, among other things. While in South America during her work for Greenpeace, Gomperts encountered women who were suffering greatly due to unwanted pregnancy. Some of these women had been raped, others were in physical danger, still others had been shunned by their communities for their being pregnant. Hearing these stories inspired Gomperts to do something about it; so she founded Women on Waves.
The concept behind the organization is that if you sail twelve miles off the coast of a country, you enter international waters, and the laws no longer apply. By physically removing women in need from their oppressive States to provide them with contraceptives, workshops, information, and abortion services, Women on Waves achieves a high level of badassery mixed with more than your average amount of feminist power.
It’s not just Gomperts, though, who believe in the importance of access to safe abortions. In September 2016, the United Nations human rights experts published a statement that said that States around the world needed to repeal laws that restrict abortions, citing the fact that unsafe abortions kill nearly 50,000 women a year. “Restrictive legislation which denies access to safe abortion is one of the most damaging ways of instrumentalizing women’s bodies and a grave violation of women’s human rights. The consequences for women are severe, with women sometimes paying with their lives.”
Women’s bodies* have become a battlefield of sorts. Wars are waged upon them – can a woman choose what she does with her own body, or can she not? This question comes up again and again, and it isn’t one that will be put to rest any time soon.
This whole story – the story of Women on Waves – calls into question so many ideas about spaces. A woman’s body is seen as an open space that can, or must, be owned. If sailors in the 17th century came across an island, they planted their flag in the ground – whether or not people already lived there. The basic assumption behind this was that they were better and more worthy of owning that space than the people who already lived there. So it went for centuries, and so it still goes, when people decide that their worth is higher than the worth of another person, and they take their space through force or legislation.
The colonization of women’s bodies happens on many levels. It starts in a girl’s childhood when she’s told what to wear, what to fill her mind with, how to play, how to eat, how to talk, how to sit. She’s taught how to take up space. The people behind this teaching often aren’t her parents, but other people. Teachers, uncles, principals, guidance counselors, whoever surrounds her and makes the rules she must abide by. In high school, she is forbidden to wear spaghetti straps or shorts that are too short. The list of restrictions on what she can wear takes up a paragraph in the school’s handbook, while the restrictions for a boy occupy a single sentence. Boys are told, “Use your best judgment.” Girls are told, “Your body is something to cover up. I will make you cover it up.” Girls are told, “Wear a bra, but don’t let it show. Wear makeup, but don’t wear too much. Wear a skirt, but make it long enough.” Why? Because if a boy gets a peek at their bodies – their space – he will want to plant his flag.
This never ends. Catcalls say to a woman, “I may claim you at any time.” Men pursue her until she mentions that she has a boyfriend – that another power, equal to him, has claimed her space. If she is raped – Heaven forbid she is raped – they will all say, “You’re lying.” Because how could a man rape a space he owns?
The fight for a woman’s space does not happen between her and another person – it happens between other people, over top of her. Once a woman claims her own space, she is seen as, suddenly, undesirable, she is doing something wrong. If she doesn’t shave her legs, she is unclean. If she cuts her hair too short, she is unwanted. If she says no too many times, she is selfish. Selfish to claim her body as her own space.
A woman’s body is an important space. It’s the riverbed that teems with life; society needs women’s bodies to move forward. But like the riverbeds, society scores women’s bodies with war and pollution.
Legislators have long claimed women’s bodies as their spaces to govern. The law of the land applies across women’s bodies too, and inside of them. 40 percent of the world’s women live under restrictive abortion laws. The World Health Organization says that globally, 22 million unsafe abortions take place each year. 47,000 of these women die from the complications.
47,000 women who made the radical and basic decision that their body was their space to own, and died because of it.
It is a burden that one must carry throughout one’s life, to have been born with a female body. It is a burden to carry an unwanted baby. It is a burden to be unable to care for a baby that you want. It is a burden to have her body reject the baby growing inside her. It is a burden to have a baby conceived out of the violent taking of her space.
Of course, it is not always a burden – it can also be a blessing, transforming, inspiring, miraculous. But for those whose spaces cannot accommodate, or whose minds cannot allow for this infringement, to be told that the decision to abort the baby isn’t theirs is a result of the colonization of women’s bodies.
Women on Waves, then, steps outside of the bounds of colonization. The ocean is unowned territory. No one government or person can lay claim on the undulating sea. They remove women from the society that tells them they cannot own their own spaces, and put them into a space where those laws no longer apply to them.
To remove women from their oppressive lands and allow them to reclaim their spaces and choices is a radical act. It brings these women out from under the legislation that claims to own them, and reminds them that their body is their own space. They own it. They can make choices for it.
It’s brave. It’s radical. But it shouldn’t be.
*here I’m referring to the female body which has historically been politicized as a “woman’s body,” with the recognition that not all women have vaginas and wombs, and that some men have vaginas and wombs, and these people’s bodies are also laid claim to