For far too long—and perhaps even now—conversations around abortions in India have been the stuff made up of whispers, stigma, and shame. While having pre-marital sex is, in itself, a big taboo, that of having a child born out of wedlock is even more so. Abortion in this scenario—in a space that is safe, non-judgemental and legit—is mostly unthinkable. This is a country where unsafe abortions are the third-leading cause of maternal deaths, and 80 percent of Indian women have no clue that abortion within 20 weeks is actually legal. And while studies have shown that unsafe abortions stem from lack of awareness, the societal norms around reproduction almost always dictate how and when women should be giving birth.
In a research last year, it was found that despite legal access to abortion services, unmarried Indians face challenges due to the stigma. In fact, even now, there is very little evidence to highlight the kind of vulnerable position the young and unmarried women are in when it comes to abortion. Which is why, last week, when the Supreme Court admitted a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) to the Centre that seeks decriminalisation of abortion and talks about giving complete autonomy to women to make reproductive choices, it made a few of us sit up and take note. The PIL, among other observations, notes how the current abortion law, under the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act 1971, doesn’t mention unmarried women at all.
In this context, VICE struck up a conversation with Paulomi Bose*, who breaks down the reality of being an unmarried woman in India and getting an abortion as a 20-year old who, like most Indian women, had little to no idea of what it means to have an abortion in India. Unlike many women, though, she has survived to tell the tale:
VICE: Hi, Paulomi*. How comfortable are you talking about your abortion?
Paulomi Bose*: I’d be a hypocrite if I told you I’ve always been comfortable talking about it. I would never ever talk about it in front of my family. And you’d never think someone like me would feel this because I think of myself as empowered, who does her own thing and to use the cliched term, is a truly free-willed spirit. I’ve talked about it to friends, colleagues, you, but never ever my family.
How old were you when you got an abortion? What did you know about it until then?
I was 20. I come from a small town, and I didn’t know a lot of stuff. I was in a relationship and yes, I was having a lot of sex. The only thing I knew about abortions was that it was evil, that you shouldn’t do it. This is what they teach you at the so-called sex-ed classes in school, where they scare (especially) female students into believing that any form of sexual activity will lead to eternal damnation. Abortion was always equated with murder. The fact that you can have agency over your own body, that it’s your choice, that abortion is a valid option, is never ever talked about. In fact, I didn’t even know it was even legal until I had my second abortion six years later.
What was your first reaction when you found out you were pregnant?
By the time I realised I was pregnant, I was already two months in. I didn’t even have the guts to go and get a pregnancy stick so my boyfriend got it for me. I took it and found out I was pregnant. And then I freaked out. Of course, I did think of keeping the baby, but I was also just 20! I was in college, and, since I come from a small town, the very fact that I was having sex without being married was a big fucking deal. And being pregnant was a much bigger sin.
So once you decided not to have it, what did you do?
You must have seen those posters on the walls, with those ads that say in Hindi, “Baccha girana ho toh call kare (If you want an abortion, call this number).” Yes, I called one of those.
I always wondered whether these were real…
Oh, they’re very real. I called this number on this poster and I was called to this “clinic” in north Delhi—a small, dingy room in one of those lower-middle-class areas. It was hard to find them so I had to call them for directions. Finally, I found this tiny signboard that read ‘Maternity Clinic’. Inside, there was no doctor. Instead, there were “technical” people in lab coats who were sitting around. I was not taken in for a physical exam or an ultrasound, nor was I asked how far along I am. I was given two tablets and asked to make a payment of Rs 3,500 (US $50). That was my entire month’s expense at that time, which included my rent, food and other shit.
What happened when you took those medicines?
I was given these two tablets, which I’m hoping were approved by the government in some way. One was to be taken orally and another to be inserted into my vaginal opening. These would dissolve inside. And then I waited. On the same night of taking those shady pills, I had the sudden urge to pee and poop at the same time. I sat on the pot, and a big, bloody lump fell out of me. For the next 20-odd minutes, I couldn’t get up, my lower abdomen was paining, and lumps kept falling out of me. It was so physically exhausting that I had to drag myself to my bedroom once it was over. And I did see what fell out: it was this bloody mass of the entire pouch that’s within your uterine wall. That’s what the pill does, which is very different from a surgical procedure I got the second time around, which is clean. With these pills, there is an increased fear of some of the baby material staying inside of you and leading to infections. This leads to so many deaths in India. I think I was lucky that everything came out. For the next 10-15 days, I had my period, and little bits and pieces of the fetus kept coming out.
How did this affect you, emotionally?
There’s obviously a lot of psychological scarring. I was 20, and for months, I imagined a pair of eyes or wondered if it was a boy or a girl. I couldn’t have sex for a very long time too. I felt disgusted. In the back of my head, I kept thinking I killed a child. Even now, sometimes I think to myself that the child would have been 14-years-old.
What were the most bizarre/disturbing things people said to you around that time?
The disturbing comments came during a professional consultation for my second abortion. I was 26 and I went to one of the best gynaecs in New Delhi, and I told her about my first abortion. The first thing she told me was that if I don’t keep this baby, I will never have a child again. She told me I was too old (!) and I will never be able to get pregnant again. She also egged me and my boyfriend (who was present during this consultation) to get married. She told him, “You’re not taking full responsibility for your actions.”
Do you think decriminalisation would change the way women have agencies over their body?
I think decriminalisation, more than anything, will help you talk about it. It’s not an overnight solution where every woman who wants an abortion will have a choice. But it will start a conversation. Unlike in the West, we haven’t even scratched the surface of the pro-choice/pro-life debate. But we need to because in India, there are already so many evils that come with giving birth, like female foeticide and crimes against pregnant women. These abortions don’t happen with professional medical help; they use homegrown techniques and midwives. There are mass abortions too.
Women don’t even talk about abortion, forget about me getting the right to have an abortion. Of course it will also be a top-down approach, and hopefully, this conversation will engage women from tier-2 and tier-3 cities. Plus, the illegally set-up abortion clinics are such huge scams. Look at me. I got it done through one of those!
Are people around you more open to talking about abortion now?
I don’t think so. We live in our privileged bubbles. People like you and I can sit and talk about abortion and how the 20-week cap is bullshit. It’s a small group that’s becoming increasingly okay. But this is what had happened with decriminalising Section 377 too, right? It started as a dialogue within a small circle of people. But I think we are still a long way away from being completely free from the shame of abortion.
If there’s anything you’d tell your 20-year-old self, going to that dingy clinic to take those shady pills, what would that be?
Read, watch videos and listen to podcasts! And don’t panic. I wasn’t dim-witted at that point; I was ignorant. But I was also one of the few lucky ones who survived a shady abortion. Not many do.
*Name changed to protect privacy.
Follow Pallavi Pundir on Twitter.