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Abortion: Risky business for a Kiwi woman overseas

Coping with an unwanted pregnancy is tough enough when you’re at home – and your home country is New Zealand. But what if you’re travelling solo and in Peru? A young Kiwi’s candid account of being accidentally up the duff and desperate. 

While I took five minutes to use the feral doctor’s office toilet, expelling the last of a major bout of diarrhoea next to the cracked paint and overflowing bin – a fun side-effect from my first attempt at clandestine abortion – I tried to clear my head. I didn’t get why terminating an unwanted pregnancy needed to be so difficult, requiring secret phone calls, forged prescription pads, maxi-pads, painful cramps and, so far, almost $NZ100 cash. But jumping hoops is commonplace in religiously conservative Peru, where I’d found myself accidentally up the duff.

There was only me, my flatmate-Spanish translator Brenda, and a couple of stragglers left in the waiting room when she arrived – the doctor who’d promised via WhatsApp that she could get rid of the fetus without surgery for 90 Peruvian soles (about $NZ45). She walked us into a back room where everything seemed legit. The bed with cold metal stirrups, ultrasound machine and a teacher-y desk; all that was missing were the outdated Woman’s Day mags.

And maybe it was because this was my last chance to end the pregnancy without surgery – several days before, I’d taken 12 misoprostol pills, which didn’t work (16 is the maximum dose). Initially I had a good feeling about this doctor. Tall with cropped hair and thick-framed glasses, she had an air of anarchy that I liked.

Anarchist Doctor suggested I take the final round of pills vaginally and orally, the way you do in New Zealand. It was more likely to work than taking them all by mouth as I’d previously done, she said. But she struggled to insert two tablets far enough into my vagina to be effective. As she fumbled around inside me, I started to doubt her credentials. And she couldn’t explain why, after hours of painful cramps and vomiting, the first round of treatment had been unsuccessful. She put it down to bad luck. Why would it suddenly work now, I thought, especially since she could barely get the pills in the right place?

I held the final two grainy tablets under my tongue on the bus home. As they dissolved, I felt sick – apprehension and nausea swelling with each beat from Sean Paul on the stereo.

I’d never heard of misoprostol until I got pregnant. In New Zealand, it’s part of a two-drug cocktail prescribed to induce miscarriage in women up to 12 weeks into their pregnancy. Typically administered alongside Mifegyne (mifepristone), which blocks pregnancy hormones, misoprostol works by causing the cervix to dilate and the uterus to contract, expelling the unwanted pregnancy like a large blood clot.

 

I was two positive pregnancy tests in, violently ill, and holed up in my friend Maeve’s Lima flat when we discovered it. Maeve was googling “where to get an abortion in Latin America” and found women were using misoprostol, an over-the-counter stomach ulcer medicine, to induce abortion at home.

Abortion is illegal in Peru, except when the mother’s life is at risk – although because of uncertainties in the law and some doctors’ own religiously related ethics, even then there have been many cases of women being forced to carry to term. But if you miraculously find a pro-choice GP willing to risk their licence or have a friend who’s a doctor, it’s possible to get a prescription for misoprostol. This was good, I thought. I knew a doctor. I wouldn’t have to leave the country, or go for back-street surgery.

I’d met Dr Lottie at a bar I’d been working at. Although I didn’t know her well, I guessed from the way she talked about Peru’s conservative culture that she might help me. When I rang, she told me she was on sabbatical, but that she’d secretly stamped and stolen a load of obstetric prescription pads for friends from the last hospital she worked in, and had some left. She’d write me a script.

We met for lunch the next day. She ran through the risks – heavy bleeding, mostly – but made it very clear she wouldn’t be able to help if something went wrong. In fact, she said, “If something bad happens, you don’t know me. If you’re not bleeding heavily, passing clots and cramping after the second dose, it probably hasn’t worked,” she explained, “but take all the pills anyway.” Then she said, “If anything goes wrong, go straight to the hospital, but don’t tell them what you’ve done.”

I had to go to six pharmacies before someone would give me the drugs. Clerks kept telling me they didn’t stock that medicine, or they’d run out, but it sounded like they knew it was being used illegally and were suspicious of women buyers. When I finally got them, I took the pills the way Lottie had told me – holding them under my tongue rather than swallowing, taking each four-pill dose at two-hour intervals. But something didn’t feel right: I’d barely bled and the cramping, while painful, wasn’t nearly as bad as Lottie said it would be. My pain threshold really isn’t that high, I thought – I wanted to get a scan to be sure the fetus was gone. Maeve took me to a doctors’ clinic down the road from her place.

It cost 10 soles to see an obstetrician. There was a sign by the register explaining how to get reimbursed from the government for your visit. I wondered how many people bothered. It wasn’t a lot of money for me, but many millions of Peruvians live in crippling poverty. We told the doctor I thought I’d had a miscarriage because I was bleeding, and he asked if I’d taken misoprostol. He seemed angry, but I was conflicted – nervous to tell him in case I got in trouble, but freaking out that something was wrong with me. So I said yes.

I could hear him talking to Maeve in Spanish through the wall while I got changed into a scratchy hospital gown to be scanned. Afterwards, she told me he’d said, “You know abortion is illegal, right? Because you’re foreigners, you’ll probably be okay because you could have gotten those pills in your country. But if I reported you to the police, you might go to prison.” He told her not to tell anyone else.

That first scan showed I was six-ish weeks pregnant. I lay there, naked from the waist down, legs in stirrups. Afterwards, Doc gave us the number of another hospital, presumably with a larger obstetrics unit, so I could continue the pregnancy. We asked if I could still miscarry. He said it was possible, but he didn’t know. As we left the office he said, “No lo intentes otra vez.” Don’t try that again.

I had a second scan two days after taking the pills with Anarchist Doctor. At this point, after having to give my passport number, nationality and full name at every appointment, I was starting to get nervous about being caught. Even though I never visited the same surgery twice, I didn’t know whether public clinics communicated with each other. How many other blonde New Zealanders were walking into hospitals around Lima saying they’d had a miscarriage? That said, even at the age of 27, the thought of prison scared me less than the thought of explaining an accidental pregnancy to my parents.

My mum’s a midwife and a former sexual health nurse, so I’ve had “the talk”; once she called me into the computer room to show me a picture of genital warts on the internet after a particularly bad outbreak where we lived. By the time I was in high school in the 2000s, sex education was routine, and compulsory without a note from your parents. I knew the risks of having unprotected sex. But I’d done it anyway, and with various partners, since the age of 16.

In the waiting room of each new clinic, I forced myself to reflect on how much of a sexual fuck-up I’d been. I blamed bad karma when the doctor at the one in San Isidro told me she shared an ultrasound machine with another hospital, and that I’d have to travel across town to see someone else. When I arrived at the bigger hospital and couldn’t find the right place to go, I was an utter mess. Eventually an orderly and another lady got me to where I needed to be, but the last straw that day was the doctor cheerily handing me a copy of my scan. I threw it back at her and stormed out.

By now, I needed money, because I’d already spent up large on misoprostol and ultrasounds, and was going to have to leave Peru to get a surgical abortion. I’d been away from home for about six months and cash was low. I didn’t want to ask my parents for help, so I did something pretty Jeremy Kyle and told both potential dads. I reasoned that since they’d both been down for unprotected sex, at least one might throw me a bone cash-wise.

Hot Chip Guy, a guy who sells hot chips, was drunk on the Sunday morning when I called. Charming as ever, he invited me over right away to discuss. After some convincing – being older and drunk, he briefly entertained the notion of us raising the baby together in his tiny apartment – he said he would give me 400 soles, half of what I estimated the total cost to be. An occasionally religious man, he didn’t officially support abortion, but said he would even try to find a local provider to have the job done in Peru on the cheap, to save us both some money.

Sniper, a guy who once bragged to me that he was the best shooter in the Peruvian army (untrue, I think), took the news less well. From his tirade of nonsensical messages (and remember, abortion is punishable by prison in Peru), highlights included:

“Was so easy to tell me when you fuck it up.”

“Sound like you want some benefit out of it… Send me legal papers.”

Hormonal, tired, angry, pregnant-me sat in my bed and cried while he sent message after message. I always did know how to pick ’em.

On 19 February, “Green Scarf” protesters marched in Buenos Aires, Argentina for the right to safe, legal and free terminations. Photo/Getty
There are 33 countries in Latin America, and only three places where women can get an abortion on demand: Uruguay, Cuba and Mexico City, where I travelled 4200km to have mine. Incredibly generous friends put me up for a week, but D-day followed the same theme as most of my journey to date – unlucky.

Latinos are notoriously chill. This is a good thing, until someone forgets to record some important information. When I got to the listed address for La Clinica de la Mujer, the building had moved. I was now lost in Mexico City, with very limited Spanish and no internet or calling capabilities. And do you think anyone would lend me a cellphone to ring the clinic to find where they’d gone? An hour later, when I eventually convinced a woman to help me and then flagged down a taxi, we got stuck in traffic for 45 minutes.

I spent the ride going over my memory bank of online abortion facts – researching what to expect had taken over my life somewhat – and was a little taken aback when we pulled up at a garish, baby-pink and white concrete building with bars on some of the windows and a bolted door, like a Barbie doll prison. Inside, the seats were covered in squeaky plastic. There were probably 50 people waiting to be seen, so I was at the end of a very long queue.

When it was finally my turn, the doctor asked if I wanted to be sedated. Trying to convince her I’d be totally fine awake, I quoted the New Zealand Family Planning website’s description of abortion: that only “a few women find it painful”. I could tell she wanted to laugh. La Clinica de la Mujer describes surgical abortion as “as painful as giving birth”.

“And you have to help us,” the doctor said while I winced, “by pushing and staying very still. If you move too much we could perforate your uterus, so we recommend sedation.”

That was my decision made. I cried because I hadn’t budgeted to be put to sleep, and honestly I just felt completely overwhelmed at the thought of being sedated in a foreign country where I didn’t really speak the language. There was this weird transactional moment when I paid. Then I got taken to a long, narrow room with six other women all propped up in a row on pink and white leather recliners under Frozen-branded mink blankets, waiting their turn.

The bed they give me was on a weird lean so I was too close to the girl on my right, Carolina. She was in obvious pain. I wanted to ask her how bad it was but we couldn’t communicate on that level. A drowsy zombie girl got led in by a nurse from the operating room, and helped onto one of the recliners. She was shivering. And the women kept coming, like an abortion production line. They looked young, and were quickly hooked up to an IV drip. I never found out why, but I got one too.

Yet even though the experience mostly felt horrible and clinical, there was camaraderie in the waiting room – people sharing how many weeks pregnant they were, laughing at each other walking in looking like zombies. Carolina, who I could speak to only through Google Translate, held my hand while the nurse put in the IV. I waited about two hours for surgery. By the end, I was showing other girls where to put their used robes and foot covers.

I don’t know how long the procedure took, what it felt like to be walked back into the long, narrow room, or how long it took me to wake up. When I came round, the nurse gave me a grape-flavoured juice box. I remember being so thirsty I stole another one from a drawer on my way out, then went to the Starbucks across the road and threw up in the toilet because I’d drunk them too quickly.

Justice Minister Andrew Little announced the first major abortion law reform in more than 40 years. The Abortion Legislation Bill passed its first reading in August 2019. Photo/Getty
Look, this isn’t meant to be a poor-me story, because while the experience as a whole was pretty hideous, shit happens. But there are some lessons in it. The first one, of course, is for me to be more responsible with my sexual health. But the other is that mistakes happen. And when they do, there should be safe, affordable and easy ways to deal with them. In Peru, those ways don’t exist, and that means people sometimes take risks and put themselves in dangerous situations like I did.

That could become a reality for many women in the US soon too, as several conservative American states work to criminalise abortion, sometimes even in the case of rape.

In New Zealand, Justice Minister Andrew Little recently announced the details of a bill aimed at decriminalising abortion – the first major reform in more than 40 years. The proposed law change would remove statutory testing for any woman up to 20 weeks into pregnancy. This means a pregnant woman could self-refer to an abortion provider up until that date, making things far less cumbersome and less stigmatising for anyone seeking the procedure. Abortion is currently a crime in New Zealand. Women have to be deemed mentally or physically unfit by two doctors, and sometimes undertake counselling, to end a pregnancy legally.

The proposed legislation is a revised version of the most conservative of three reform options put before the Labour-led coalition government by Little. It was negotiated for several months, facing reported delays from New Zealand First, which now wants it put to a referendum. The chosen bill, said Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, was the one most likely to win the majority vote in caucus. Parliamentary members will vote independently on the issue, rather than along party lines. But non-parliamentary groups on both sides have taken issue with the proposed changes: Family First is vowing to fight the supposedly “radical” change to the law. Others say it doesn’t go far enough. The Abortion Legislation Bill easily passed its first reading on 8 August, moving onto the next stage where a special committee is to prepare a report on the bill and make recommended changes.

Wherever you sit on the debate, Statistics New Zealand says 21 in every 1000 women have had an abortion at some time in their lives. So it’s happening, without fuss, probably to people you know and love. Most don’t go shouting it from the rooftop; they just make the best decision for themselves at the time. And in the end, does it really matter what someone else wants to do with their body?

This article was first published in the October 2019 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the fortnightly email for more great stories.