Abortion: There, I Wrote It, Said It, and Did It
I write for those women who do not speak, for those who do not have a voice because they were so terrified, because we are taught to respect fear more than ourselves. We've been taught that silence would save us, but it won’t. - Audre Lorde
At about 6am on a Thursday morning in early-April last year, I sat on the floor, leaning against the edge of my bed, trembling with the force of the tears I was holding back. I looked out of the wide window facing the length of my room and desperately searched for signs of being in a very, very bad dream. I looked down at my phone and struggled, again, to dial a 10-digit number I now remembered by heart, but couldn't bring myself to call.
A few moments later, I mustered every last bit of courage and dialed the number anyway. Three long rings in, he finally picked up in a voice that sounded both surprised and exasperated. The last time we spoke was at least three weeks ago, only to end whatever foolish arrangement we thought we had in the guise of being 'unaffected' friends with benefits. He was neither a friend, nor is sleeping with the ex boyfriend who ripped your heart to teeny-tiny pieces just a few months ago ever a 'benefit.'
"Hi, I know this is an odd hour, but are you awake?"
"Yeah, I'm at the gym. Tell me? What's up?"
"Umm... So... I don't know any other way to say this, but I need to talk to you about something."
I looked down at the white stick in my hand, at the two lines that had seared their way through the little window at one end of the stick. I told him. And I let the tears flow.
It would be fair to assume that it would take an immense amount of stupidity on the part of an educated, liberal woman to not know if she were pregnant. It would also not be incorrect to want to trace a few steps back and question the possibility of having skipped on adequate protection. My defensive, but sincere response to that is, "Hey, shit happens. Unfortunately, it happened to me."
How else would you explain having used a condom AND an emergency contraceptive AND having a severe case of a highly non-reproductive uterus (PCOD)?
Although, even with the best intent and alibi, ignoring over a month of severe morning sickness, day-long nausea, an annoyingly heightened sense of smell, tender and swollen breasts, rapid mood shifts, extreme exhaustion, and a misplaced maternal instinct, could not be termed as plain oversight. I suspected the worst, I just didn't believe any bit of what my better sense told me.
When I was forced to accept I was pregnant, I immediately calculated how far in I may have been to have skipped two consecutive periods. If I was within the 8-week timeframe, I could easily pop the pills and wait to flush it out. I had considered this before, I could do it. Super easy. Super painful and traumatising, yes. But no one would ever know and it would all be over in a couple of days. But if I wasn't...
Later that night, when he'd had enough time to absorb the situation, he questioned my sense of timing over a tense phone call.
"It's been TWO MONTHS and you didn't check EVEN ONCE? HOW COULD YOU NOT KNOW?"
"I said I thought it was impossible. It IS impossible. We used every f****** precaution in the book. I swear I didn't think it could be THIS."
"TWO MONTHS!! I should be mad at YOU for not telling me!"
"I'm telling you, I DIDN'T know. Why would I lie about something like this?"
"I don't know, man. You tell me?"
And that's when I was reminded of why I ought to have been glad we weren't together anymore.
Suddenly, the path ahead seemed more daunting than I'd imagined when I peed on the stick that morning. These things have a way of creeping up on you as time passes. You go from lightheartedly wishing and praying that the positive line doesn't appear, to then pinching yourself to 'wake up' from this nightmare, to a confused, crumpled, crying heap on the floor.
In near automation, I picked myself off the floor, took my clothes off, walked straight to the shower and stood under it for what seemed like eternity. I believe that hot showers can cure almost anything. Bad days at work, horrible grades, fights with friends, heart wrenching break ups, being at loggerheads with your parents, anything - just soak in the shower and, somehow, your problems do seem to wash away. Well, at least for a while. Except, this wasn't just a bad day at work, or a heart wrenching break up. This was worse, much worse.
The next morning, we headed down to meet a doctor at a posh maternity-focussed hospital in South Delhi. I'm not sure why, but the idea of spending a lot more hard cash looked like the easiest way out of the judgement and unnecessary explanations I anticipated. Going to a gynaecologist as a sexually-active, unmarried Indian woman is a bit like cultivating a dealer - if you want the good stuff with no extra bullshit and complete discretion, you fork up for the guy who gives you exactly what you need and buggers off into obscurity as soon as the transaction is made.
On our drive there, we spoke about what we'd been up to these past few weeks, our new jobs (we'd both switched around the same time, but belonged to drastically different industries, much like the personal spaces we existed in now), his new sunglasses, my latest food discoveries, and all the other things that could make for safe conversational territory. It was almost amusing to see how rapidly intimacy dissolves in our times. We could barely look at each other without a tinge of awkwardness and a whole lot of regret. It had only been a few weeks, but I reminded myself that our relationship had dissolved a long, long time ago. Which made it even stranger for us to be confronting this situation at this juncture of our association.
Once we reached our appointment, I was ushered in for a routine set of tests: blood pressure, weight, and so on. I weighed way more than I remembered in the past few months, but on the side of the elusive silver lining - the adage of pregnancy hormones inducing a beautiful, radiant glow held perfectly true. We were asked to wait in the lobby with a couple of other sullen looking patients. A heavily pregnant woman paced back and forth trying to keep her wits about her in what was turning out to be a long wait for everyone. Her husband, whose stomach was far more distended than his pregnant wife, had his face buried in one of the medical journals lying around on the waiting room table. Perhaps, to avoid making conversation with anyone, including his hassled wife. At the far end of this waiting space, stood a lithe, tall, attractive lady who was by herself (much to the joy of my companion). At the risk of sounding like a long dead cliche, the married, pregnant folk looked irritated; with their situation, their spouse, the long wait to see the doctor, everything. In the meanwhile, the two of us sat and joked around like we were at a mass clown convention.
We were making the right decision. It would all be over soon. We'd go in, demand the pills, pay up, and never look back. It was so ridiculously simple. Except, it really wasn't.
"When were your last menses?"
The doctor mentally calculated that down to the current date and scribbled something on top of my prescription sheet.
She then proceeded to explain that calculation to me, but she didn't need to. I could see where she was going with this: it was possible I wasn't eligible for a pill-based termination at all. She propped me up on the table for an internal examination and pressed my abdomen to feel for the pregnancy. She kept at it for a while, until I almost thought this was all just a faulty-home test false alarm. No sooner than I had let myself relax, she pressed down harder on a spot below my navel and I winced. I was screwed.
"You're finishing the first trimester."
"Are you sure you want to opt for an MTP?"
"What's an NTP?"
"I don't know what that is?"
"Do you want to medically terminate the pregnancy? Do you want an abortion?"
"Uhh, yes. That's why we're here."
"I'm supposed to confirm that with the patient. We can't act without your consent."
I looked at him, hoping for some sort of reinforcement, but was met with that rare look he had on every time he was faced with a situation he did not comprehend, but pretended to anyway.
"I'd love to keep it, but I can't. We need to proceed with the MTP. I've thought about it, I can't keep it..."
She cut off my emotional ramble (thankfully), "Ok. Get an ultrasound. I've written out the tests you need, and let's meet tomorrow evening. Carry your results."
About a half hour later, I was propped up on the radiologist's table. She ran the stick over my abdomen, whilst happily chatting me up on my health, diet, and my thoughts on my first ultrasound. She was shocked to know I hadn't been checked up in all these weeks. I wanted to tell her that made two of us. She swirled the stick around for a bit, while I was immersed in thought on what lay ahead. Would it hurt? How much would it cost? Should I tell anyone?
Barely a few moments into that deep contemplation, the doctor stopped at a spot, zeroed in on something on her computer, and the screen in front of me lit up with an image I will never, ever forget.
He had warned me to not look at it. I could've taken the advice, but knowing myself – I wouldn't have.
“You're only going to hurt yourself. Don't look at it. Get it done, walk right out. DON'T LOOK AT IT.”
This was no longer an “it.” I was looking at the most beautiful, but scariest thing I had ever seen. A little kidney bean with a bobby head and two visibly outstretched arms appeared on the screen in front of me. It was exactly like the movies, and yet very different, and very real. Everything about this little creature appeared strangely endearing. As I was softening to the image I had just witnessed, she swirled her stick around and a rapid heartbeat boomed across the dark, little room.
“170. Normal. Everything is fine, the baby is healthy. Are you here with someone?”
She gestured at her assistant to call him in to see this, but I stopped her immediately. He'd told me he had no interest in seeing the ultrasound scan. Not now, not ever. I really did wish he would, though. I was mesmerised by what I saw in front of me. There was a real, live baby inside me. A perfectly healthy, developing foetus with a heartbeat that put everything else I'd heard to shame. In all these weeks of being sick and swollen, and the months spent getting over my break up, and the years spent on a boy who served only to teach me karmic lessons, I'd never felt so strong, reassured, or as overwhelmed as I did when I saw the scan.
Pregnancy hormones are no joke. If you think a bout of PMS can turn your life upside down, these bad guys can do much worse (or better). It wasn't until I got pregnant that I realised what a beautiful masterpiece a woman's body is, and more so a pregnant woman's. In the first few weeks alone, my body began to show an immediate dislike for every vice I enjoyed. If I so much as took a swig of light beer, I'd spend the next hour hugging the pot and puking my insides out. If I lit up a joint, I'd pass out with the nausea. If I ate something that wasn't good for me – straight to the pot. My body was fiercely protecting my foetus, but killing me. I read somewhere that being pregnant feels like running a marathon. Every. Single. Day. It's often worse, in my experience. Especially when the maternal instinct kicks in at the oddest moment. Like, when you're smack bang in the middle of an ultrasound, right before an abortion.
As I lay there, spellbound by the images flashing in front of me and the thumping sound of the foetal heartbeat pounding across the small dark room, I was forced to confront why I could not keep the pregnancy. I was 26, unmarried, living with my parents, not financially sound to support anyone other than myself, and the father of this baby wanted to have no part of a decision that didn't include an abortion.
The doctor asked me to schedule the next scan, which is when I clarified I was going ahead with the procedure. That's it. Her attitude towards me changed as swiftly as I had delivered that statement. Why was I not surprised? I sensed the air in the room turn icy cold. I jumped off the examination table and showed myself the door, all while carefully avoiding the radiologist's derisive stare. All of this happened so quickly, I could barely process what I had seen in that scan, let alone react to the doctor.
Frankly, as an unmarried woman in India, you're always prey to someone's judgment at all times. Especially when concerning female sexuality. Right from the time you're a little girl, your sexuality and your comfort and understanding of your own body is so painfully constricted by the patriarchal notions of society, it's impossible to detach oneself from the heavy, warped moral compass hung around like an albatross on your neck. At this point, my proverbial compass was pointing 90 degrees south to 'You're a horrible, promiscuous human being who will burn in hell.'
I shut out the crap my head was telling me, and focussed on a mental to-do list I'd prepared. Walk out. Go home. Don't talk about it. Sleep it off. Wake up. Get your tests done. Go to work. Look and act normal. It will all be fine.
The next evening, I was scheduled to meet the gynaecologist at her family clinic. He had picked me up from work, but things between us weren't too great. It was at that moment that I understood, at least in part, why men are incapable of fully comprehending the wide spectrum of female emotions. This wasn't a gender construct, but just a function of our conditioning. I saw how much and how well he blocked complex emotions. His cold practicality was proving to be a volatile, ugly match for the hormone-induced emotional roller coaster I was battling. That could very well have been the summary of our half-a-decade long association too, but this was no time for nostalgia.
I was called in after an hour-long wait in a dingy, musty waiting room full of wailing babies, shrieking mothers and tired fathers, and scruffy nurses. I remember looking at him, pleadingly, to convey that if we were going to do this, it wasn't going to be here. Not in this depressing clinic. Not on these dirty, brown sheets. Not among these people.
The doctor—who now seemed more kind and maternal, than cold and clinical from the day before—looked at my reports with an expression that grew more concerned with each passing second.
“You're too far in. We need to do the operation tomorrow.”
“What?! You said we could wait a week?”
“No, we can't, beta . We're already too late. If I could, we'd do it now.”
Luckily, I wasn't the only one who was shocked by that advice. He looked like he'd been smacked by a brick. Twice.
“I'm not prepared... I can't do tomorrow. I'm working, I can't take leave until next week.”
“We can't wait. You're almost finishing your first trimester, you've come to me NOW and you're anyway not eligible for the pills. This will need surgery, you'll need to be admitted and put under general anesthesia. This is serious.”
I wasn't really perturbed by the thought that I would be in surgery, SURGERY, for a whole day, knocked out with anesthesia. I knew I was bothered by something else. Had I become attached to this pregnancy? How is that even possible? Till a few days ago, I wanted nothing more than to not be pregnant, and now, I didn't want an abortion?
But that was really it, even if it weren't the pregnancy I wanted, I was petrified by the idea of what lay before me in the ridiculously short frame of time. I was to start a round of pills at 5am the following morning, take some more every few hours to dilate the cervix, admit myself at the hospital at sharp 7, get on a drip and wait for the procedure to be held early afternoon. Some of the toughest 12 hours of my adult life lay ahead of me, but I was not ready for any of it.
No sooner than we had stepped out of the clinic and sat in the car, I started crying. Again. The lines between what the crazed hormones induced and what was my own sense of guilt, attachment, and regret were pretty blurred at this point. He sensed my fear and slipped his fingers into mine; he assured me we wouldn't make any decision I wasn't comfortable with at any point in this process.
However, what had to be done, had to be done. That night, I prepared myself for what was to come in the morning. I couldn't keep this baby. It wasn't because I was young and unmarried, but because there was no way I could have provided it the life it deserved. I wouldn't term the pregnancy a 'mistake.' A woman's body is built with the beautiful capability to produce life and will act in accordance with its nature, but I was educated and privileged to understand that I owed it to myself and my baby to exercise the right and healthy choice of terminating the pregnancy in time.
The debate on whether abortion is murder, or not, isn't one that can be conducted by anyone other than the person who undergoes the procedure. The very same way any other choice ought to be made with regard to one's body.
Would delivering the baby harm my health? Not at the point in time when I discovered it. But carrying and delivering a pregnancy is not a fraction of the commitment required to provide for a child. Would it then be cruel to continue the pregnancy knowing I could not raise the child to the best of my ability? My decision to abort stood firm on the basis of the answer to this question – yes, it would be.
I'm not an authority on how, or what, women ought to feel when faced with such a situation, but my own experience combined with what I've read, seen, and heard from women I know reveals at least one thing in common to all of us: we didn't wish for it to happen, and when it did, the decision hinged on our health and well being over anything, or anyone, else. Maybe that sounds selfish, as any pro-life activist would harp on about. But the fact—however inconvenient to those who stand against abortion—remains that it's isn't about keeping a pregnancy, it's about bringing a human life into this world and being able to raise it in the best possible circumstances. By circumstances, I don't mean wealth and pampering, but basic healthcare, education, and love and support. Conception is easy; carrying a pregnancy, too, isn't the hardest thing in the world, but raising a child the right way is something even the best of us may fail at. Why then are we so reluctant to acknowledge the rationality in accepting abortion whenever necessary? Women aren't breeding machines, and having a uterus that is, by nature, programmed to create human life isn't the best reason to disrespect a woman's personal choice. We're not trying to repopulate the earth here, people. Science has advanced in the field of obstetrics for good reason. How about we respect that?
As clear as we were on our decision to abort, we were clueless when it came to the actual medical procedure that was due the next day. I checked in at 7am, having already started on a course of medication to dilate the cervix well in time for a mid-day surgery. We stopped for chocolates along the way; it was his little way of trying to lift my dwindling, drowsy spirits. Of course, as anyone who has undergone a surgery of any kind will tell you, you're put on a very strict schedule of not consuming ANYTHING prior to the procedure. Miserably, I sipped on water for the next few hours. Once checked in, I was escorted to my room, put in those ugly hospital robes that split open at the back, put on a drip, and made to fill out a billion forms that specified everything from whether or not sulphur could kill me to who would be responsible for me in the event of death or surgery-related complications. It was turning out to be a lovely, sunny morning.
The next few hours were an excruciating test of my endurance for deep physical discomfort, his nerves, and our doctor's commitment to ensure I got the best care I could for the money I had forked up. At this point, and without sounding elitist, my only solid advice to anyone who may find themselves in need of an abortion is to be willing to afford the best healthcare possible. While that advice would hold true for ANY healthcare, it's no secret that plenty individuals would approach seedy, back alley clinics to 'get done' with the procedure and not have anyone hear of it. Well, don't. An abortion, especially of the surgical kind, is to be treated as seriously as you would any other serious ailment. Be prepared to shell out for good care, because your body needs and deserves it. That, and use a condom. Always.
Five hours into having checked in, after countless other tales had been shared to keep our mind off the situation, we were told it was time to wheel me in for a D&C, or Dilation & Curettage , which is, essentially, a procedure to scrape the uterus of its lining and any remnants of a pregnancy. I really didn't know what to expect, but I knew this was it. The final leg. It would all be better from here on, or so I hoped at that point.
What followed after being checked into the OT is a blur. Once the anesthesia was injected, I remember the cute, young resident asked me what I liked the most. I thought for a second.
“Puppies. German Shepherd puppies.”
“Ok, think about German Shepherd puppies and relax. We'll see you on the other side.”
I smiled at him, and drifted off.
I woke up a few hours later, back in my room. He was standing by the bedside and his face bore a very strange expression: a mix of concern and what he often looked like if his favourite football team was on the precipice of losing a tense game.
I finally got my bearings. It was over. All over. O-V-E-R. Strangely, and I don't know what I was hoping to achieve, I felt my stomach for any sign of life. It could've been the hormone dip, but I felt a wave of sadness wash over me. But I knew I'd done the right thing – not for me, but for a baby that had no role to play in its conception and would never have had the opportunities it deserved, right from the time it was conceived.
I was fortunate to have a very mature, kind, and able doctor at my disposal, a supportive, concerned companion and, most of all, kind friends who visited me and relayed no judgment. The medical care aside, like any difficult situation, I needed my support system. I was, and am, fortunate to be surrounded by sensitive, mature individuals who have been raised in liberal, educated structures and respect a woman's choices with no preconceived notions, or unsolicited opinions. This entire process—before, during, and after—would've been a ride through hell if it weren't for the people I opened up to and who supported me through the physical and mental ordeal.
While an abortion is by no means a joyful situation to find oneself in, I do firmly believe it is made much worse by the severe stigma attached to it. Sex (premarital, or otherwise) is not the problem. Getting pregnant, although best avoided, isn't the problem; it's nature doing what's it's supposed to do and is, in fact, a beautiful process. Abortion, too, is not the problem. The stigma associated with terminating a pregnancy IS a problem. The prevailing attitude that forbids a woman from taking control of her body and her choices, choices that affect her alone, is a problem.
I choose to believe I live in a free world that grows more accepting of an individual's personal choices, and finds resonance in others' trials and tribulations. I made my choices, I made some mistakes, but I cleaned up my own mess. Why then the stigma? The judgement?
Per my research, one in four women undergo an abortion at least once before the age of 45. I have cause to believe that statistic looks very different with each passing day, to reflect higher numbers. Look around you, and I guarantee you'll find at least three women who've been through something similar. It could be your friend, your girlfriend, your sister, your mother, your aunt, your neighbour. But, of course, being unmarried earns one so many labels and derision, it's no surprise no one would ever be willing to come out with such a decision.
The abortion may have been long over, but the physical and psychological after effects haunted me for several weeks after. The HCG hormones that double every day during a pregnancy, take just as long to exit the system even though the pregnancy has been removed.
I recall, I took a pregnancy test a week or two after the procedure, only to get a 'positive.' I freaked out, but reminded myself this was normal. The mood swings were as violent as earlier, but I knew I'd have to ride it out. Maybe I felt a bit of regret too, but I knew I had done the right thing and that my hormones were messing with me. It was at this time that I turned to all the support I could receive – my beautiful, strong mother and my wonderful, supportive friends.
As part of my grieving process, I made the choice to humanise whatever I had experienced of the pregnancy. I imagined it may have been a little girl, that when the time was right (if such things do, indeed, happen) I would see her again, and that it could have been karma. Her karma to be born this way and to exit just as quickly... maybe that's all that was left for her to finish. Mine, to carry this pregnancy and bear the consequences.
A year on, I see the situation with far more clarity than I did then. I see it not so much from the perspective of 'what if,' but more from understanding if it would've been easier if we could talk about these things openly. Maybe if abortion didn't have such an unnecessarily horrid reputation, I could've spoken to someone sooner and avoided the surgery. Maybe if the fear of judgment wasn't so pervasive, I could've saved myself the heartache, the confusion, and the immense physical strain.
If I could, I'd wish my future generations can live in a world free of futile judgement, oppression, or societal and/or religious dictates of any kind.
Of all the wisdom this incident imparted, including a renewed faith in complete self-reliance and greater respect for the marvelous wonder that is my body, I learnt something very, very important that can be distilled in just three simple words: Make good choices.
It doesn't matter what anyone else says or thinks, you've got to look out for yourself and do the right thing. So, forever and always, just make good choices.
Feature image source: Tara Todras-Whitehill