Written by Miracle Okah
When my friend found out she was pregnant and told me about it, the first question I asked her was if she wanted to keep the child. This was because deciding whether to keep a child is one very important decision women have to make selfishly. I understood that whatever decision she made, especially one free from external influences, would be the right one for her. She was torn between wanting to get rid of the pregnancy and keeping it. Still, as a student with no extra source of income and with the potential of having a child with an unstable father, she made the best decision for her life and future, which was opting to terminate the pregnancy, and this was a decision I respected.
A private hospital was recommended to us for the abortion, and we went on the scheduled date. As her friend, I was allowed to accompany her into the operating room, and the overall experience was unsettling. The doctor made a lot of inappropriate remarks in a demeaning tone: “Big girls are good in bed, are you good in bed?”, “Why are you shouting? If you could take in a dick, then you certainly should be able to take in a curette“,”Younger girls will come to remove the pregnancy, and they won’t even squirm, but you are here, crying and shaking as if you didn’t enjoy the sex with your boyfriend”. Due to the illegality of abortion, women are being restricted to the limited options that they have, hence the reason why we had no choice but to continue with him.
Derogatory remarks like this are aided by the fact that abortion is illegal in most countries; MSF estimates put the number of unsafe abortions each year at over 25 million, with 97% of them in developing countries, which lead to at least 22,800 deaths and millions of serious complications. 3 in 10 pregnancies worldwide end in induced abortion, 7 million people are hospitalised each year for complications from unsafe abortions and every 23 minutes someone dies from unsafe abortion. One would think that from the statistics, the government strives to make abortion legal so women can have access to good and safe abortion care to reduce the mortality rate. However, that is not the issue; women are being forced to have unsafe abortions, which in turn lead to complications, their death, or subject them to unwanted, disrespectful and belittling remarks from the doctors who carry out the abortion.
I spoke to Seyi about why she got an abortion at the age of 19 and what her general experience was like. She said, “I decided to have it done because I was 19 and in my 200 level. I couldn’t afford to mother a child, financially and psychologically. At first, I reached out to a female doctor, but her religious and ethical values wouldn’t let her, so I told my best friend, who was a medical student. Then he asked around and found some pills which I used. I was stupid enough to get pregnant again, when I was through with school. I knew better, but I let it. This time around, I couldn’t tell my best friend. I was disappointed in myself. My boyfriend took me to a ‘clinic’ he knew, and the experience was a horrible mess. The woman we met was a midwife and a local abortionist. She explained that she’d give me something and then drag or suck the liquid out. I was scared shitless. What she didn’t say, however, was that she needed to use a scissor-like instrument to poke inside my uterus. That shocked me. In less than 5 minutes, she had completed the process and moved me aside to attend to another client. She gave me some pills and told me I would bleed later. Three days later, I had the most excruciating pain I have ever experienced, and I bled. A week later, I found a Marie Stopes clinic near my workplace where I sought a checkup and professional advice”.
Speaking with other African women about their experience revealed a shared narrative of invasive questioning about their sexual history and encountering derogatory comments from doctors. Even in other African countries where abortion is legal, women still face such derogatory remarks.
When I put up a request to speak with other women who have encountered this, Amin, a fellow church member, talked about her mom’s experience: “My mom was around 33 years old when she found out she was pregnant with a child. My dad, wanting to pursue his education, felt having a child would maybe prevent his progress or slow it down. He insisted on abortion and my mom on her part, not wanting to have a child with a deadbeat father, agreed. That fateful day, when the abortion was to take place, she was admitted and laid on the hospital bed waiting for the doctor. On his arrival, the first thing he did was to brush her legs with his hands angrily, saying, ‘Useless girls everywhere, all they do is sleep around and accuse innocent young men of being responsible for their pregnancy.’ My mom wasn’t a young babe then; she was 33!”
She further went on to say that if the doctor didn’t want to carry out the abortion, he should have just said so instead of resorting to insults and humiliating words.
“My mom wasn’t happy about it; she left the hospital angrily and decided to have the child. Till today, she still says if not because she got pregnant and couldn’t abort the baby, she would not have married my father”.
From Amin’s story, you don’t need me telling you that women are constantly being forced to have children they don’t intend to have. And according to society’s standards, it is okay for men to deny pregnancy and choose not to take care of the children, but women do not have the right to their bodies and neither do they have the right to say no to the children they are not ready to have.
For Adwoa who sent me a message on Twitter, she said the doctor had asked if she was aware that she could die from the abortion: “The doctor asked if I was aware I could die from a D&C. I wasn’t sure why he said it at first but I was bothered by it and I was afraid for my life. I know there were chances I could die but shouldn’t he at least be positive? He went on to ask me where I intended to go in case I died from it because heaven doesn’t accept murderers. I got up and wanted to leave angrily but he called me back and said he was joking and that nothing was going to happen. Normally I would have stormed out to look for someone else, but I didn’t really have a lot of choices so I stayed. The abortion was successful but throughout the process, I was scared to death. Too scared to cry or even make loud sounds in order not to irritate him, I laid there and swallowed the pain. I can boldly say I haven’t recovered from it till now. It was really a traumatic event I wouldn’t wish for my enemy”.
“Mine was after the abortion; the doctor was already making a side comment during the process ‘You are just 22, and you are having sex; when I was your age, I was in school, reading my life out; you are here fucking and getting pregnant. How was the sex sef? Was the man even good?’ I didn’t answer; I ignored him and watched him go in and out of me with my legs wide open. He then prescribed a lot of drugs to help with my bleeding and asked me to check back for a follow-up. More than a week later, I realised the blood hadn’t stopped, so I reached out to him; this man called me an ‘Irresponsible fool’. He said my common sense should have told me to come when I noticed the blood didn’t stop initially. I cried that day because I felt stupid, stupid for not knowing that bleeding for days was unusual. I couldn’t even tell anybody about it; I wish the doctor had been kinder to me; if he had, maybe I would have reached out before that day,” Rukky, a 400l university student, had told me.
In addition, around December 2022, a woman in her 40s told HuffPost about how the doctor told her she should have been ‘more responsible and should have known better’. “I laughed involuntarily. His comment was so absurd and insulting that I felt my brain separate from my body like I wasn’t there”. “Responsible,” I repeated. “I’m married. I have a kid already. I take the pill. And anyway, I thought I was in perimenopause.” she had said. “The word ‘responsible’ weighed on me. I thought of the endless forms to sign, the butts to clean, the meals to cook, the sheets to change, all the frantic work calls I had to take while my daughter was yelling for me down the hallway, all the rushing to do after-school pickups from the subway in the before-times. Of course, I had weighed this decision carefully”. She continued.
It is one thing to be scared of abortions and going through the whole process; it is another thing to be afraid of what doctors might say to you. Society is already hard enough on women, and I wish the doctors would make things easier. Women have to go through abortion pain, stigma and guilt. Hence, healthcare workers must be more compassionate and respectful to make them feel better and at ease.