Sometimes we write what we wish we could have read at certain critical junctures in life, even if it’s only to feel like we belong. This is one such piece. It’s been a little over three years since the first time I got pregnant and ‘chose’ to have an abortion. ‘Choice’ is a very fraught word, and in situations like this, you don’t need to read up on theoretical critiques of the liberal idea of choice to understand why. Of course I was relieved that I could get an abortion. My reasons for not wanting, or being able to want (yes, the two can’t always be neatly distinguished), a child at the time were many – I didn’t earn enough to support a child, my partner expressed no intention to support me through the pregnancy even if I wanted to, and I had no support system to actually raise a child. Beyond all this it was just the plain old, I wasn’t ready to become a mother, especially not that way, and not then.
I’d always wanted to have kids when I ‘grew up’, not necessarily within the sanctified institution of marriage. This was something that I’d told my parents – I’d thought about adopting a kid, or maybe going through artificial insemination. We’d also talked about pre-marital sex and live-in relationships. I don’t think my parents ever thought all this was doable, or ‘practical’ in the society we live in; they weren’t ‘that liberal’. But yes, I did have a space at home that was safe enough for me to speak such blasphemy and be heard.
Nevertheless, I knew without doubt that they would have been devastated to learn about my out-of-wedlock pregnancy. Maybe they would finally give in to the long, angry tirades from friends and family, who’ve accused them of having given me too much freedom; “It’s dangerous”, they had warned. Wasn’t I supposed to be grateful that my parents were quite liberal, that despite being small town middle class people, they had grown with me and opened up painfully to ideas that didn’t belong in their familiar patriarchal world? They had let their daughter decide what she would study and wear, where she would live and travel to, and how she would use her income, and here I was, all pregnant! I had no sindoor on my forehead, no thali around my neck, and no legal certificate that attested my right to have a ‘legitimate child’. How could I betray their ‘trust’ in me, that I wouldn’t bring dishonour to the family?
I’ve been reminded by friends that I should be thankful about my ‘liberal’ parents, but I don’t know if I am, if I should be, or if I want to be. I don’t know if I should wish for a world in which we have pockets of such questionable and partially ‘safe’ spaces. Incidents like this make you realise that boundaries are porous – not just the one between my egg and his sperm, but also the ones between my feminist mind and the grieving body, between a so-called liberal family and the patriarchal world it occupies. No spaces exist in isolation, and no space can exist without interactions and negotiations with the ‘other’. This reminds me of the saying that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. How I wished to be an island instead – impenetrable, impregnable; not a chain, not an egg.
I couldn’t bear to deal with my family and the ensuing drama, because I had more pressing concerns. How would I pay for the abortion, how could I even think about raising a child? How could my partner just turn deaf and mute; did he not love me? How could my (then) best friend, who had pre-marital sex herself, suddenly transform into a devout Catholic who cared for the ‘life’ inside me more than she cared about me? How could my body betray me and end up getting pregnant – wasn’t it aware of my marital status? Why was it painful for me to let go of this little ‘thing’ growing inside me? Am I being ungrateful about my ‘choice’ to have an abortion; do I have a legitimate right to mourn the termination of my pregnancy without betraying the cause of feminism?
* * *
On my 25th birthday, I walked into a gynaecologist’s office. I complained about my late periods, and mumbled something about PCOS. My doctor was a young woman, perhaps in her early thirties. She seemed kind, and warm. First she asked me if I was married. When I told her I wasn’t, she asked me if I was sexually active. Of course, I said, a little taken aback about being asked such a personal question by a stranger, but what had I expected?
“Could you be pregnant? Let’s do a test,” she suggested nonchalantly.
My breasts had been painful and growing. I was hungry all the time, with strong, strange cravings, and I had been on an emotional rollercoaster already. Yes, I must be fucking pregnant! But you’re not officially pregnant unless a doctor or a pregnancy stick certifies this. I decided to go with the former; I felt safer having another woman around. So I peed in a little cup, and she dropped a few drops onto the stick – commenting all the while that all she needed were a few drops, and not a cup full. I giggled, forgetting my nervousness, and she smiled.
After a few minutes of awkward silence, and uncomfortably shifting in my seat, she looked me in the eye and broke the news to me – I was pregnant. She went on to explain the two options that I had – medical or surgical abortion. I was asked to take a scan to rule out ectopic pregnancy, and to confirm how old the foetus would be. Maybe I stopped breathing for a few seconds, I don’t know, but she looked concerned about my response and checked my BP. I don’t know if this was routine, or she had noticed the sweat on my forehead. My BP was high.
The doctor tried to calm me down, and advised me not to trust men. “All they want is sex,” she said. I’m sure she was being sympathetic, but it felt like she wasn’t really seeing me – what if I wanted to have sex too; maybe it was just sex, or maybe it was making love.
With time, however, I began to feel exploited, now that my partner wasn’t available for any kind of support, emotional, or financial. It was easier to feel victimised, and it was better than being ridden with guilt or shame. For days I yo-yoed between these states of being. Then there were days when I was happy, like on the day of my first ultrasound. I was relieved that ‘he’ was healthy and attached at the right place. Scientifically knowing how a foetus is born doesn’t take the beauty and poetry out of it.
I had a medical abortion two weeks later, with money borrowed from a friend. My doctor informed me of the inevitability of recording all abortions – I could ‘choose’ to be a single woman who has been raped, or a married woman whose contraception has failed. In the former case, the law would treat me as a rape victim. It meant that I would be required to file a rape case against the ‘perpetrator,’ and go through the ‘standard procedure’ for rape victims. My second option also meant that I would have to lie – in this case, about my marital status, which sounded silly in comparison. But the humiliation I experienced in having to lie about who I was in order to exercise my right over my body didn’t feel very silly.
* * *
It took me three years of immersion in reproductive politics, of being surrounded by feminist friends, of many private conversations where I wasn’t judged but listened to, and of many rounds of grieving and healing, to finally be ready to let go of the shame that defined my experience of abortion. Pregnancies and abortions can be hard and emotionally exhausting not only because of the hormones, but because of changes in patterns of relating – including how you relate to yourself – that it often entails.
I lived, through my body, the disintegration of a relationship with who I thought was the love of my life. It isn’t that I wouldn’t have had an abortion if I had been supported by my partner, but it would have been a different experience. Perhaps I would have remembered it as something that brought us closer – grief can bring us closer only if we can feel it, openly engage with it, and communicate with each other. Not everybody deals with pain the same way; some shut down, some reach out. My then partner wasn’t evil either; I certainly don’t approve of his actions or lack thereof, but he happened to have been dealing with his own guilt and pain too.
The abortion was physically one of the most painful experiences I have ever gone through, but if you have painful periods, this could be more or less the same. But what made it painful emotionally? Was it was the tearing away of what has been a part of my body, if only for a month or two? Was it the loss of my possible future as a mother – was it the grieving for what could have been a child? It was all of this, and also how everyone responds to you, and how you can’t speak without being judged, and how you can’t tell your family why you haven’t been feeling on top of the world lately.
I’m not saying women shouldn’t get abortions, or shouldn’t have sex only for pleasure (though the use of a preferred method of contraception does serve everybody involved); it is the complexities of the experiences of abortion that need to be openly acknowledged and discussed within feminist circles, at the very least, if we aim to create safe and stigma-free spaces for women. I’ve noticed the eagerness with which some of us brush away the suggestion that women can get depressed after an abortion, as though acknowledging the pain would deny the importance of having the option of abortion itself. The pain of it all cannot weaken feminist politics – what we need are spaces that can hold both grief and relief. It’s about women’s rights – to our bodies, our futures, and exploring and enjoying our own sexualities – and it’s also about our voices, pain, and loneliness.