I first heard about the Dutch pro-choice organisation Women on the Waves watching Diana Whitten’s documentary Vessel in 2014. This was during my feminist awakening when I began the naïve but necessary rite of passage which connected the dots between the feminist literature I was reading and the world around me. It was the year I read Federici and co-organised a Ladyfest with a group of friends who I learnt, and continue to learn, a lot from. I remember watching the film and then emailing a list of people encouraging them to do the same—I must have liked it a lot, because I distinctly recall taking a gamble with who I shared it with, cc-ing people outside my circle of closest friends, risking silent judgement on my taste.
As of 2017, 42% of people of reproductive age live in countries with restrictive abortion laws. In 2003 the World Health Organisation estimated that every 8 minutes someone in the world dies of complications arising from an unsafe abortion. In 1999, Rebecca Gomperts, a doctor on a Greenpeace ship, asked a friend to design a mobile gynaecological clinic, which she and a team then strapped onto a Dutch-registered boat and, at the invitation of local pro-choice activists, sailed to countries where abortion is criminalised, or at least very difficult to access. In port, the organisation Women on the Waves offers legal and medical workshops. They also pick up people who are seeking an abortion and sail them into international waters, in most cases 12 miles from the shore. On the way out to sea they offer sonograms and reproductive counselling, and, once outside of the nation’s territorial waters, a doctor on board will provide a non-surgical abortion.
We watch the ship Aurora, named after the Roman goddess who flies across the sky announcing dawn, ferry people in the Baltic, 12 miles off the coast of Poland. Once there, a rocking camera films someone’s hands as they read out the ship’s co-ordinates. Off-camera a voice says, ‘We are in international waters, and if you want to end the pregnancy I have a pill for you.’
Reproduction is spatial; it is a part of state-making processes. And because pregnancy and family formation underpin political territory it is therefore overseen by the state. As political geographers point out, babies and reproductive bodies are wound up in geopolitical projects, whether to manage the size of a labour force, or in the name of xenophobic protection against demographic change. Abortion, then, is also spatial. Respective states control where and when abortions can be carried out: in many cases only in a clinic and with a doctor’s permission. In others abortions are illegal but, if you travel abroad to receive one, you won’t be criminalised on return. Elsewhere they are completely prohibited.
Women on the Waves’ strategy of resistance is spatial too: they take advantage of the legal pluralities of ocean space to reveal the state’s limits and, within a legal loophole, create a temporary autonomous space where abortions can take place. Although Gomperts initially intended the mobile clinic to be a long-term option for delivering abortions, the demand is too high to be practically met in this manner, so the project functions in part as an awareness-raising media campaign about restrictive abortion laws and the consequences of illegal abortion. But the action is not only symbolic. Although a lot is written about the often important role imagination has to play in prefiguring different worlds and alternative futures, I like the way this action materially creates the world it wants to offer, producing the conditions it desires, even if the space eventually vanishes.
When I find myself knowingly adoring someone, I think of Patricia Arquette in the final scene of True Romance driving against the sunset, repeating: ‘You’re so cool, you’re so cool, you’re so cool’, accompanied by Hans Zimmer swell. That’s the sort of feeling Rebecca Gomperts provokes in me. There’s something of the pirate in her, in the lineage of Sayyida al-Hurra, Anne Bonny: she defies expectations, rails against injustice, smokes and drinks on her ship, performs abortions in the face of patriarchal violence. My own crush on her reminds me of the attention garnered by Pia Klemp and Carola Rackete, both ship captains who were arrested for picking up migrants in the Mediterranean Sea. I don’t think their, or Gomperts’, sacrifices or achievements should be diminished, but the way I place ‘the rescuer’ centre stage doesn’t feel quite right.
Instead it might be useful to think more about how pirate communities actually lived. As Linebaugh and Rediker document in The Many Headed Hydra, 17th and 18th century pirates were often societal outlaws, people for whom the system didn’t work, those desperate for employment, on the run from the law, runaway slaves, sex workers, deserters from war.  Together these radicals practiced ‘insurgent hydrarchy’, creating spaces on ships where they governed themselves as limited democracies using the pirate code which included dividing their loot equally, distributing justice and maintaining a multiracial social order, in so doing directly challenging the development of capitalism and international trade.
I re-watch Vessel and it strikes me that the ship space is not only created by the architectural attributes of the ship and the clinic itself, or exclusively by Gomperts’ vision, but by the people on it. There’s a scene in the documentary in which anti-abortion groups onshore state that they plan to release photos and names of those accessing the ship. In response, a large group of local activists all wearing dark glasses and head coverings congregate on the jetty and board the ship together making it deliberately unclear who is a volunteer and who is seeking help. The beauty isn’t in the one swashbuckling visionary who comes to the rescue of those seeking abortion, but the anonymous community who care for each other and in doing so create a space of solidarity at sea. Like the pirates, in this system repressive masters are overthrown, a black flag is raised, a new way of being together is forged.
In the 17th and 18th centuries rebellions and riots often took place in harbours and ports when sailors retaliated against their employers. For the past year I have been interviewing people who took part in the Liverpool Dockers’ lockout. In 1995 the dockworkers refused to cross a picket line which included their sons and nephews sacked by a sub-contractor to the main company at the port. As punishment for refusing to cross the picket they found themselves sacked and their jobs advertised the next day. They subsequently entered a dispute with their employers that lasted until 1998.
One of the most spectacular actions associated with the dispute involved an international strike in solidarity with the Liverpool dockworkers: on 20 January 1997 dockers in 27 countries and 105 ports illegally stopped work. Ports along the entire west coast of America came to a halt, alongside 40,000 dockworkers in Japan, Sydney and all the ports in South Africa which closed ‘in solidarity with the Liverpool dockers who stood by us during the years of apartheid’. We are led to believe that commodities circulate in a smooth, frictionless way but this is a fantasy. Capitalism involves people, and connectivity is in constant tension with the possibility of disruption. I love the image of ships filled with cargo circling the world’s oceans, unable to dock, a clear demonstration of how important the worker’s labour is. A strike, a withdrawal of labour, might be thought of as a ceasing, a termination, an abortion of work but this withholding is generative, it produces new ways of relating and thinking and being together.
Rebecca Gomperts is interviewed by press in Ireland, a journalist asks her if she has ever had an abortion. She’s pissed that the journalist is bringing biography into it: ‘You know, I don’t think that’s an appropriate question because there are 45 million abortions taking place each year, there is no medical intervention that has been done more than abortion.’ The journalist then attempts to justify their question, mumbling something about personal experience before Gomperts halts them: ‘No, don’t try, it is too easy. I mean, are you going to ask someone working for Amnesty International whether they’ve been tortured? Come on, that’s not the issue. The issue is do women really have basic human rights to be able to decide what is happening with their own bodies?’
Later, the Portuguese minister of defence forbids the Women on Waves ship to enter Portuguese national waters claiming it poses a severe risk to national security. Two Portuguese warships equipped with three cannons and two torpedo launchers are sent to monitor the Women on Waves boat as it bobs in international waters. With no way to bring people on board, Gomperts goes on a Portuguese live TV chat show where she displays a packet of medicine bought from a local pharmacy that contains Misoprostol and describes the safest way to buy and take it, despite abortion being illegal in Portugal at the time. Visibly annoyed at the conservative commentator she has been paired with, she tells the audience that she has previously had an abortion, that she is pregnant now, that she is happy she has the choice to continue her pregnancy, and happy that she had the choice to end one when needed.
Backstage we see the host of the TV show chatting to Gomperts. The host congratulates Gomperts and shares that she has a child. ‘It’s so nice, it’s very nice’, Gomperts replies, smiling, ‘ …if it’s wanted, it’s delicious.’
There’s a Northumbrian folk song that I listened to a lot last year while pregnant, ‘When the Boat Comes In’. The Nic Jones version ‘Dance to Your Daddy’ is beautiful, but I prefer the older lyrics. I watch a lo-fi video on YouTube of folk singer Bob Fox performing it in which he describes it as a ‘dandlin’ song, traditionally sung by grandparents when they’re dandlin (bouncing) their grandchild on their knee.
Thou shalt have a fishy
on a little dishy
thou shalt have a fishy
when the boat comes in.
I never really disentangled whether I identified the ‘fishy’ in the song as the foetus that I would eventually meet, or if I was moved by the idea of feeding and nurturing the foetus through pregnancy and into their life. I think the sentiments coexist, mixed with the anxiety that I wasn’t reaching the weekly tallies of oily fish portions the state recommended for the wellbeing of the unborn.
And well may the keel row
That brings the bairns their bread.
When that pregnancy ended prematurely at three months in a visceral traumatic mess, in the days and weeks that followed I was met with a vacuum of explanation—the state that had been temporarily interested in my wellbeing swiftly dropped me. I searched doctors’ eyes for withheld explanations as they shrugged their shoulders telling me it was one of those things, one in three. I spent evenings scrolling threads on chat rooms, the comments sections under articles, searching the modern-day communal spaces where folk knowledge is stored and passed on, trying to understand. In the absence of medical reasoning my mind would provide its own cruel explanation: I’d rowed this keel pretty badly, failing spectacularly to nurture my produce in any way compatible with life. In the 18th century shipwrecks were referred to as miscarriages. I was a bad boat, a bad house.
I often find myself caught out singing the wrong words to ‘When the Boat Comes In’, the fish change verse-to-verse: fishy turns to haddock, turns to mackerel, to bloater, to salmon. Bob Fox explains that the song is a metaphor for people in the North East badly exploited by their bosses, always hoping for their fortunes one day to change: waiting for the fishing fleet to come in, they hope that instead of the usual herring they’ll get something better.
‘Well may the keel row’ refers to a song about the keel men of Tyne and Wear, a group of workers in the 1600s who rowed the Tyne keels —large awkward boats that transported coal from the banks of the shallow rivers to waiting collier ships. Steering cargo around sandbanks and wrecks in the water, and unloading it by hand into ships as both boats rose and fell in the lethal tidal swells at the mouth of the river, required unique skill and local knowledge. The Hostmen of Newcastle upon Tyne, businessmen who controlled the export of coal from the river Tyne, began to overload the boats with more and more coal prompting the keel men to go on a series of strikes. Some historians claim the keel men had one of the earliest trade unions.
As children, when one of our pets died my brothers and I would decorate their home with their favourite snacks, flowers and tea lights and carry them down to the Thames near the flat we lived in in Brentford and set them afloat, to Valhalla, littering the river with hamster cages and fish bowls. There was a thrill to watching the lights bounce off into the dark shiny river before we lost sight of them. In the weeks following the miscarriage I would dream that I had inadvertently sat on and squashed small creatures: kittens, hamsters.
HMS Maidstone, anchored in Belfast Lough in 1971-1972 was used as a prison ship during Operation Demetrius, an operation that involved the British Army arresting and interning 342 people suspected of being involved in the IRA en masse, many of whom it transpired had no links with the organisation at all. In 1972 seven IRA internees escaped the prison ship by swimming to shore. In preparation they managed to sow dissent between the two sets of warders on the ship, encouraging those from Northern Ireland to be less diligent as their colleagues from England were being paid £40 more than them. Worried that there were barbed wired entanglements underwater alongside the ship they began to feed a seal and watched where it was able to swim freely alongside the boat, and they spent hours learning the movement of the currents by observing how the rubbish was carried in the lough. On the night of escape they smeared their bodies with boot polish and butter and descended into the water, managing to swim to shore, drive a local bus parked in the port into the centre of Belfast, and from there travel to Dublin where they held a press conference.
Although abortion was decriminalised in Northern Ireland last year, on 1 April 2020 the regional health ministry missed a deadline to begin providing abortion just as the Covid pandemic hit. The only publicly funded abortion clinics open to people from Northern Ireland, are in Manchester and Liverpool, but during lockdown no direct flights were available.
Thanks to Tom Betteridge, Helen Charman, Evelina Gambino, Rob Kiely and Nisha Ramayya for conversations about pirates, logistics, ships and wombs.
 Singh S et al., (2018) Abortion Worldwide 2017: Uneven Progress and Unequal Access, New York: Guttmacher Institute.
 World Health Organization, (2007) Unsafe abortion: Global and regional estimates of the incidence of unsafe abortion and associated mortality in 2003 5th ed. Geneva: World Health Organization.
 Calkin, S. (2019). ‘Towards a political geography of abortion’. Political Geography, 69, 22-29.
 Linebaugh, P., and Rediker, M. (2012) The Many-Headed Hydra: The hidden history of the revolutionary Atlantic. London: Verso.
 Lefebvre, H; trans. D. Nicholson-Smith, (1991) The Production of Space, Oxford: Blackwell.
 Lambert-Beatty, C. (2008) ‘Twelve Miles: Boundaries of New Art/Activism’, Signs, 33, 2, 309-327.
Emilia Weber lives in London where she is currently undertaking doctoral work at UCL.
TENANCY is a MAP project in twelve parts, presenting new work considering what it means to occupy somewhere–or something–temporarily. The project is curated by Helen Charman, MAP Commissioning Editor.