By Nabilah Mohammad

Abortion is perhaps one of the world’s most polarising issues today. Although it is widely practised, it is not widely accepted. Laws on abortion vary across different jurisdictions, from prohibiting abortion under all circumstances to freely allowing it without restriction.

In Singapore, abortions are guided by specific government regulations, which doctors must adhere to strictly. Here, abortions are legal for women up to 24 weeks of pregnancy and available to any woman who wants one. However, even in places where the practice is legal, abortion can still be hard to talk about. As shared by our interviewees in this article, high levels of stigma surrounding abortion are creating a culture of silence which may stop them from speaking to their family and friends about their experience out of fear of being judged.

The Karyawan team spoke to three women and one man who came forward to share their stories for the first time.

The team met Nur (not her real name), who had an abortion last year. According to her, deciding to terminate a pregnancy is not a walk in the park. Verification of the premarital pregnancy meant a new reality for her. She started to consider her readiness, describing the experience as a lonely journey during which her values were challenged.

“I had never questioned the morality of abortion before but when it comes to your own body, you start to think about things differently. The second I saw the two lines on the pregnancy test stick, I was left with more questions that I could possibly answer. I cannot describe the panic and stress I felt immediately. It was clear to me that I was not ready to have a child; however, when it came down to actually getting an abortion, I had no idea where to begin. As a professional, high-earning, independent woman, the unexpected difficulty of this experience on both personal and relational levels was shocking. I carried on going to work as normal but found myself completely unable to function,” Nur shared.

Nur walked us through her experience.

“I was over three months pregnant, so I had a surgical abortion. I remember the morning I had the procedure, my hands were ice-cold, still hoping that this was all just a bad dream. I was brought to a small room and made to lay on a giant chair with stirrups. They immediately started the procedure with a machine that makes a noise like the suction at the dentist’s office. The doctor talked me through the whole process in an attempt to ease me until I was knocked out by the anaesthesia,” Nur shared.

According to Nur, the recovery process was emotionally uncomfortable as she was placed in a shared recovery room, which she felt forced her to be part of others’ experiences as some women were upset, nauseated or in pain.

“The procedure was over really quickly. I woke up wanting to know what had happened to my body, but also not wanting to know. The nurse moved me into the recovery room after the procedure. My vision was blurred but I could hear everything clearly. There were rows of girls in beds, placed literally side by side in the dark, only separated by a curtain. I can hear the lady next to me fidgeting in discomfort from the other side of the curtain. I could hear another girl moaning in pain and another vomiting. It was horrible. I was sobbing alone the whole time, rubbing my belly and repeatedly saying sorry,” Nur added.

The Karyawan team also spoke to Shila (not her real name), a 34-year-old early childhood educator, who has been married for six years. Shila shared that she was about 23 years old when she had her abortion in 2010. She was working as a flight stewardess and was eight weeks into the pregnancy when it happened.

“As soon as I got to know I was pregnant, I was utterly shocked and felt ashamed for my disgusting act. Disgusting because I failed to be a good Muslim. When faced with an unplanned pregnancy, I needed to consider a lot of things such as how the child may affect my relationship with my family, my boyfriend, society, or my professional and personal lives. It was not an easy decision for me to make, but what made me certain were the images of my family members replaying in my head – ashamed of having a Muslim daughter or sister like me. The decision to abort the pregnancy was the only solution I had to undo this mistake without anyone knowing what had happened,” Shila said.

Shila explained that the feelings of guilt came from her upbringing, viewing premarital pregnancy and abortion as morally wrong. According to Shila, she was born and raised in a religious Muslim family, so terminating the pregnancy was the only way out she saw for herself.

“I could remember vividly how affected I was when I got to know that I was pregnant. I cried, disappointed and ashamed of myself. Back then in my secondary school days, I used to stereotype teenagers who had babies at an incredibly young age as unethical. With this pregnancy, I felt that I am just one of them. I felt that I was a disgrace to myself, family, and community,” Shila said.

Shila also mentioned that she had to experience the situation alone. According to her, she called her boyfriend, who was in another country, for support, but all he told her was to immediately abort the baby before anyone found out.

He was not that supportive as he could not be physically there for me. In addition to that, he kept calling to ask if I had aborted the pregnancy. He did not even ask how I felt or if he could support me in any way despite the distance. I eventually told my best friends what had happened and they were supportive about the whole situation. It made me feel better as they did not judge me,” Shila said.

Nur agreed that it is important for women who have had an abortion to have strong social support as the psychological impact that follows can be distressing. She shared that without social support, abortion stigma will continue to impact women’s well-being long after the decision to abort or not to abort has been made.

“The mental anguish that followed was intense. The next day, I spiralled into a depressive, anxiety-filled state like nothing I had ever experienced. I am grateful that my partner was there all the way. He searched for the best doctor, brought me to the clinic, waited till I was done, ensured that I had a good recovery and pacified me every time I broke down. I can’t imagine doing it all alone,” Nur shared

We also spoke to Liya (not her real name), who, like the other two women, argues that causing family shame and having a child out of wedlock are the main drivers in her decision-making process. Liya, a year-old married mother of one, has had three abortions and each time, she suffers the effects of guilt and Liya, who is also a polytechnic diploma holder, had her first abortion when she was 19. She had just started working at that time and could not afford to have a baby. Her main worry was how devastated her parents would be if they found out she was pregnant.

“I was quite young when I had my first abortion. I had gone on a date with somebody that I didn’t know particularly well. We had a few drinks. One thing led to another and I woke up the next morning unable to remember the night and unsure of what had happened. I know that I followed him back to his house but everything else was a blur. Fast forward a few weeks and I am overcome with worryingly ‘pregnancy- like’ symptoms. I eventually took the pregnancy test and when I saw that it was positive, I was shocked,” Liya shared.

Liya shared that there was no way she and her partner could afford to bring a child into the world. They knew what they had to do so they booked an appointment for the abortion at a clinic in the eastern part of Singapore. Liya explained that she was in no way capable of raising a child as she had no income. Her partner was also going to university and most importantly, she did not want to disappoint her family.

About four years later, at 23, she found herself pregnant again by another boyfriend. She did not think she would be so ‘unlucky’ as to get pregnant again.

“I did not even know I was pregnant. I had a few missed periods but dismissed it as irregular menstruation until I had a horrible stomach ache. My aunt eventually brought me to the hospital thinking it was a stomach-related problem. I took a urine test and met the doctor with my aunt. To my disbelief, the doctor told us that I was about seven weeks pregnant. I couldn’t even face my aunt after that. I hid in the hospital’s toilet and cried, as I was too ashamed to face my aunt. Fortunately, she was understanding and kept it from my parents. She was supportive of my decision to terminate the pregnancy as we both knew that I was not ready,” Liya shared her experience.

Five years after her second abortion, Liya got pregnant again. This time, it happened while she was having a casual affair with a colleague. She dreaded the thought of a third abortion, but the father of the child told her to do it, so again, she terminated the pregnancy.

“I walked into the same clinic for all my three abortions as I was already familiar with the place, procedure, and doctor. There is a great sense of regret. Every now and then, I think about it. I would have had three more kids. I often wonder what they would have looked like; how old they would be right now. I think about them often,” Liya said.

The women we spoke to shared that when they find themselves in conversations about abortions with others, people are too quick to judge and admonish the women. According to them, the physical, psycho- logical, and social perils of an unwanted pregnancy are virtually exclusive to the carrier of the baby; that it is entirely the consequence of unprotected sex to which the woman had consented.

“It takes two to cause an unwanted pregnancy. I feel that we also need to talk about men when we talk about abortion. While the ultimate decision is the women’s, society needs to realise that abortion is not solely a woman’s story. To ignore men’s accountability for unwanted pregnancies despite us being arguably more to blame, is just mindless,” Nur added.

 “Once, I was sitting with a group of preschool teachers and they were talking about a particular person who was had gone through an abortion. I heard them saying, ‘Perempuan tu dah buat dosa sekali, nak buat dosa lagi’ (That woman had sinned once, now she’s sinning again). You do not hear people blaming the man because the one going through the abortion is the woman. That is why the guys are like, invisible,” Liya shared.

We had the opportunity to talk to Andi (not his real name), a 32-year-old entrepreneur, whose partner had an abortion. According to him, abortion in general is viewed as a women’s issue and he felt that it is important for him to talk about his experience with abortion as a man, a voice rarely heard in such a discussion.

“When we are still in the relationship, it is not solely the woman who will be affected by the abortion. The man shares the impact of the actual trauma as the child is produced by the two. Not going through the procedure physically doesn’t mean that the man cares less. In addition, possible depression that arises after the abortion may affect the woman and their partner has to be there to support them and understand the changes in emotions and moods. This will then aid the process of recovery,” Andi shared.

Andi, whose partner had an abortion recently, shares that he was very aware of the societal stereotype that assumes men do not want to be involved when an unplanned pregnancy happens, which he feels plays a part in the difficulty in navigating conversations on abortion.

He reiterated that a decision for an abortion affects the man as much as it affects the woman. Andi shared that he wanted to be as supportive as he could by letting his partner make the decision, but also made sure she knew he was there for her.

“Looking at the sonogram and seeing my unborn child was very sentimental for me. I was looking at a product of my partner and I. Personally, if I were given a chance to make a shared decision about keeping the child, I would want to be responsible for our actions and raise the child. But I had to consider our capability and whether the situation at that moment was permissible for the both of us. The ultimate decision should be made by the carrier of the child as I might not truly understand what was going through my partner’s mind. Maybe she was scared, worried or simply not ready for a child. She was definitely leaning towards having an abortion hence, I resisted discussing about keeping the child with her,” Andi added.

Our participants shared that the stigmatised and contested context of abortion can make women’s experience especially sensitive, influencing how they perceive their care and how they assess their experience. According to them, the perceived stigma may cause women to feel less empowered to ask questions about the procedure, and are less likely to challenge the cost, the poor treatment, or to tell others if they receive low quality care.

“I guess the stigma women experience may be associated with having conceived an unwanted pregnancy. Yet I am grateful to live in a place where there is an option and I can make the decision to have the procedure safely,” Nur explained.

Nur also shared that she felt exposed and uncomfortable even before entering the clinic. She felt judged outside the abortion clinic by everyone who was there, and she continued to feel uncomfortable after she entered the clinic. She shared that she felt self-conscious for needing an abortion and susceptible to the negative judgment of others, including the clinical staff, which compromised her ability to feel at ease.

“It is a women’s clinic that’s also famous for their abortion procedure, so when a girl goes there, you know she is getting an abortion. From the time I got there, I was embarrassed by it. I walked into the clinic and I felt like all eyes were on me. It’s like everybody knows. There was a dead silence that is hard to describe in the waiting room,” Nur shared.

According to our interviewees, the trauma involved in being responsible for the death of one’s foetal child can be emotionally overwhelming. All of them spoke at length of the grief surrounding their experiences. They also describe the fear of public exposure, the possibility of infertility and of compromised marriage prospects. The emotional and psychological impact of abortion also manifests itself in low esteem feelings of social isolation due to the need for secrecy and feelings of powerlessness as they attempt abortion without their family’s knowledge. When they are forced to keep their situation a secret, even from the people they are closest to, it says something about how alone a woman can feel.

“People don’t realise the impact of abortion because no one talks about what happens after. I had excruciating waves of cramps that I endured and treated them as a form of punishment for my decision. The stigma impacts the help-seeking process because I could not talk to anyone else as I didn’t want them to find out I had an abortion. It was even harder trying to mourn when I didn’t even feel like I deserved that right. For months following, I have heard the cries of newborns – at the park, in the bus on the way to work – and it triggers that frigid day. It is not easy. I did not just wake up and say, ‘okay, today I’m going to kill a baby’. No, you do not think like that. You are grappling with a real-life moral decision,” Nur shared.

Everyone has an opinion about abortion, but for our interviewees who were in this situation, figuring out right from wrong becomes a complex question. The people we interviewed shared their stories so people in the same situation will find strength in taking a step towards healing when they realise that they are not alone in this struggle. Abortion is something we tend to be more comfortable discussing as an abstraction; the feelings it provokes are too complicated to face in all their particularities. Which is perhaps why, very few people talk openly about the experience, leaving the reality of abortion, and the emotions that accompany it, a silent witness in our discourse.

Nabilah Mohammad is a Research Analyst at the Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA). She holds a Bachelor of Science in Psychology and a Specialist Diploma in Statistics and Data Mining.

This commentary was also published in The Karyawan, April 2021, Volume 16, Issue 2.

Photo Source: The Karyawan