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It’s time to talk about abortion

It really is time for the conversation about abortion to come out in the open. No more shame. No more callousness

Messages and tributes left at a mural to Savita Halappanavar, on Camden Street in Dublin, Ireland, during the Irish referendum on liberalizing the abortion law. Photo: AFP
Messages and tributes left at a mural to Savita Halappanavar, on Camden Street in Dublin, Ireland, during the Irish referendum on liberalizing the abortion law. Photo: AFP

On 28 October 2012, 31-year-old Savita Halappanavar died in a hospital in Ireland because she was denied an abortion that was critical to save her life. Halappanavar was 17 weeks pregnant when she began to experience pain and internal bleeding. Her pregnancy had become unviable, a miscarriage was inevitable and her life was at serious risk. Yet, despite repeated pleas from her family, doctors did not intervene to save her.

In 2012, abortion was illegal in Ireland, a Catholic country. Termination of pregnancy was allowed when the pregnant woman’s life was at risk, but there was complete legal uncertainty about the precise circumstances in which this exception could apply. Halappanavar was allowed to die of ruptured membranes and septic shock to honour an outdated law that claimed to be pro-life.

Four years before Halappanavar died, I was pregnant with our third baby. In my second trimester, when I was trying to pack our bags to travel to my husband’s family home in a village in east Uttar Pradesh, I knew that I was not well.

“I have no energy," I told my friend Shefali over the phone. “I cannot even go to the kitchen and eat something when I feel hungry."

“Cancel the trip," she said, “you can’t go like this."

“I can’t," I said. “I have to go."

In the bathroom, I noticed that my urine had become very dark. I didn’t stop to think about it.

As my condition deteriorated in the village, blood and urine test results led to a diagnosis of jaundice. I called my gynaecologist. She was in Jammu because her own mother was critically ill. She told me to lie down. She said, “Just stop moving around completely and lie down in bed. Find a way to get back to Delhi as soon as possible. Get an opinion from a GP for medication for jaundice. Don’t walk, don’t even stand. Lie down."

I went to our room and lay down. I sent text messages to Shefali and Manish, my younger brother. He called my mother, who spoke to my elder brother, a doctor based in San Francisco. I also had a condition called cholestatis that caused extreme itching. It felt like my body was on fire. I would draw blood on my arms and legs every day. As the bilirubin levels continued to rise in my bloodstream, I would slip in and out of deep, dark sleep and be unable to open my eyes even when I felt I was awake.

I was put on a glucose drip as I lay in bed. Our two children were five and three years old. They would come into my room and see the stand with the glucose bottle first, then me smiling feebly from behind it. They would run out quickly.

My sister-in-law sat with me all the time—talking, smiling, consoling me. Hadeesun, a friend of the family, massaged me. I fantasized about how I would help her after I had recovered. How I would remain eternally grateful to them.

One afternoon, I spoke to my husband, Afzal. I told him that if I began to sink and it became an emergency, I wanted him to save me first. “I’m not afraid to die, but I want to live for my daughters," I said from behind the haze of fatigue and medication. He smiled and tried to crack a weak joke.

My elder brother spoke to his colleagues and read up on high bilirubin levels in pregnancy. He raised alarms. “Airlift her out of there," he said. Afzal suggested that a train journey might be more relaxing. “No, no," Bhai said, “in case she begins to go into coma on a night train, you will not be able to rescue her."

At the Varanasi airport, I tried to seem as normal as possible so that our children felt safe with me. Afzal dealt with tickets, luggage and boarding passes. We went straight to my parents’ home and then to hospital when we reached Delhi.

When I read about jaundice+cholestasis+pregnancy on the internet now, there are many possibilities of cause and effect that explain what was happening to me. At that time, none of my doctors was able to connect the dots for us. They told me to be prepared to terminate the pregnancy if my medical tests didn’t come out right. I imagined that I would be devastated, that it would take me years to recover from the loss of this child in my womb.

After another month of being on the brink, eventually both my pregnancy and I began to stabilize. The baby began to kick around a lot in my belly. Then she was born. Small, but perfect. And very hungry. She looked around for her sisters.

When I read the news of Halappanavar’s plea for an emergency abortion, I followed her story with horror and rage. How could a woman’s life be treated so callously despite the privilege of her circumstances? What kind of world refuses to rescue her and punishes her with death to maintain its own moral high ground?

Six years after her death, Halappanavar was in the news again last week. In a historic referendum, 66.4% of voters opted to liberalize the highly restrictive abortion laws of Ireland that had led to Halappanavar’s premature death. A video shared widely on social media showed thousands of Irish women chanting her name victoriously. “Savita, Savita, Savita…"

“No more stigma. The veil of secrecy is lifted. No more isolation. The burden of shame is gone," said Ireland’s Prime Minister, Leo Varadkar. Like Halappanavar, Varadkar is also of Indian origin—the son of an Indian doctor and an Irish nurse.

All women know that it isn’t just laws that isolate and stigmatize those who choose to seek abortions. Societies all over the world deny the legitimacy of this need. In their most vulnerable time, women themselves abandoned, forced into secrecy and deeply dangerous situations.

Take any group of adults, give them a safe space to share their experiences, and stories of voluntary abortions done simply because the pregnancy was not at a convenient time will come tumbling out. It was too early or too late, or the gap between children wasn’t enough. More than once, I have stood outside operation theatres in hospitals waiting for a friend to be wheeled out after the termination of her pregnancy. A study by The Lancet Global Health journal estimates that almost 80% of the estimated 15.6 million abortions in India in 2015 took place outside medical facilities, creating serious medical risks for the pregnant woman.

A pregnancy is not a woman’s responsibility and burden alone. When she wants to take a decision about it, she has every right over her own body and life choices. When she needs support, the rest of her world needs to step up. It really is time for the conversation about abortion to come out in the open. No more shame. No more callousness.

Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker, media trainer and author of the book My Daughters’ Mum.

She tweets at @natashabadhwar

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