How Reproductive Health Makes It Harder to Travel as a Woman

Sometimes a morning after pill requires leaving the country.

by Christine Estima
Feb 8 2017, 3:23pm

Lead photo via Wikimedia

It's almost Valentine's Day, time for all the lovesick dudes of the world to treat their missus to something special. Ferrero Rocher. Hydrangeas. Open all the pickle jars. Kill all the spiders. Or, in my case, put me on a train to another country so I can access reproductive health care. Take all the time you need to let that romance wash over you.

A few years ago, I had been backpacking solo around the world, sleeping on strangers' chesterfields and hitchhiking from point A to B when I bumped into a handsome German and decided to stick around for a while. Living in Germany was new and exciting and terrifying and confusing in many ways: I had a new boyfriend, the city had an exciting arts scene, and the German language is wholly terrifying and confusing. It was a crazy time in my life where I was relying mostly on the kindness of strangers to help me get along. All those emotions collided when my boyfriend and I realized one day we needed the morning after pill. Known as NorLevo 1.5 mg, the pill is only available by prescription in Germany. But as I was a Canadian, without a German general practitioner (GP), and without a German health insurance plan, there was no way I could have afforded the out-of-pocket cost of seeing a GP, let alone even get an appointment. I was (and still am) a cash-poor writer on the best of days, and if I wanted to be rich, I wouldn't have chosen this profession, that's for damn sure. The German government requires that all residents have health insurance—half the cost is paid by the employer, and the rest comes out of your paycheque—but if you are stuck in a grey area like I was, you have to pay up front much like an American health insurance policy. I could barely afford my €20/month phone plan.

When I asked why women's health care wasn't included in my policy, my insurance broker exchanged a look with his colleague, and the open-concept office burst into a fit of embarrassed giggles.

That morning, my boyfriend had to go to work, but a decision on what to do had to be made quickly. So he stuffed a wad of Euros into my hand and put me on a train to the Netherlands, the closest neighbouring country where the pill can be bought over the counter.

The need for women to cross borders, and spend beyond their budget, just to receive reproductive health care is nothing new. Northern Ireland—which, let's not forget, is in the UK—has banned abortions, forcing women to travel to mainland Britain to terminate a pregnancy, an expense beyond many women's means, or forcing them to buy drugs online to induce miscarriages, which can result in criminal charges. As I quickly realized when I bought travel insurance for my backpacking trip, women's reproductive health care is rarely covered by any policy: birth control, pap tests, neo-natal care, abortions, maternity care, or any OB/GYN care is rarely covered. Even asking for it comes with social stigma and shame. When I asked why women's health care wasn't included in my policy, my insurance broker exchanged a look with his colleague, and the open-concept office burst into a fit of embarrassed giggles.

Travel for women is never simple. Women are at the mercy of the laws of the nation in which they travel, and just saying something like, "I'm a Canadian, you can't do this to me!" won't get you out of trouble. In many countries, there may not even be a Canadian consulate to assist you. Women must always double-check: Am I allowed to wear trousers in this country? Am I allowed to show my hair in this country? If I am assaulted, will I be blamed for it in this country? Am I allowed to drink in this country? Am I allowed to drive a vehicle in this country? Will my marriage be recognized in this country? Am I allowed to travel with my same-sex partner in this country? Am I allowed to ride a bicycle in this country? Am I even allowed to enter the country at all without being accompanied by a man? The checklist is longer than a Gordon Lightfoot song.

Travelling within Europe for women is easy compared with other parts of the world, but there are still great social burdens in conservative regions that dictate how women in public must behave and dress. I found that out the hard way as I travelled through the Balkans and tried to go dancing, and also in Italy when trying to enter a house of worship.

This means women have to plan and budget for incidentals that men need not. Germany may be one of the most progressive countries in the West, but many times before this incident, I had to fly back to London where I'd been living previously, for trans-vaginal ultrasounds, pelvic exams, blood tests, and more just to figure out why I had been experiencing so much pain. Turns out it was polycystic ovarian syndrome. Anyone know how to say that in German?

As I was on the train to the Netherlands, a great fear took hold. Even though border controls within the EU were long gone and EU law stipulates a freedom of movement, I couldn't forget the time I was on a train docked at Hamburg, departing for Copenhagen, when several armed, plain-clothed German Polizei boarded the carriage and removed anyone who couldn't produce their passports or documents. You don't need a passport to travel from Hamburg to Copenhagen, but one by one, young people were grabbed by the arm and muscled off the train.

As I neared the Dutch border, I was certain this would happen to me. Could this be considered drug-smuggling? I didn't even have the wherewithal when I left our apartment to bring my passport. All I was carrying was my useless Ontario driver's licence and a stupid look on my face.

I had never felt more isolated. More alone. More judged for choosing to live my life as I saw fit.

My nerves got the best of me as we crossed the border, and I hopped off the train at the first stop—a town called Venlo, which so frequently sees German nationals that it doesn't even use the national Dutch KPN railway network and instead uses the German DeutschBahn network. Exiting the station, I ran across the street to the first flashing green cross I saw, the universal symbol for a pharmacy.

Approaching the counter, after asking if she spoke English, I asked the chemist if she had "this drug." I then slid her a note with the name NorLevo 1.5 written on it. I didn't even want to say the drug name aloud. I didn't want anyone to overhear. I didn't want to invite those repercussions. She looked up at me, met my eyes, and disappeared into the back. This is it, I thought. I'm going to be denied and detained, sent back to Germany. Cops will be called, and my bags will be searched. Over the top? Maybe, but that's how I felt.

The people at the next wicket over were looking at me and exchanging words in Dutch. Any English speaker in that neck of the woods was sure to garner a few looks, to be fair, but I couldn't uncouple it with what I was going through. I had never felt more isolated. More alone. More judged for choosing to live my life as I saw fit.

I found it sad how my boyfriend wasn't expected to take care of this. The notion that he should miss a day of work to help fix what he had helped create was a stupid idea, but me travelling to an entirely different country was not. Why should he have to deal with the emotional repercussions when he can just throw money at the problem and leave me to my own devices? I had to take six trains in total (three there and three back), and I had to expend untold emotional and mental distress just to safeguard my health. I came close to tears as I waited for the Dutch chemist to return. My boyfriend's day, I suspect, was the same routine as any other.

After what felt like the length of a Bible, the chemist returned and handed me the packaged pill. She told me it had to be taken within 72 hours. She also handed me a cup of water. I wanted to fall to my knees and kiss her feet.

I paid, stepped outside, and downed the pill and water in the grungy parking lot—a stone's throw from German territory. The old customs booths and border control checkpoints were never torn down. I could see them just beyond the train station. They sat hollowed, rusted, and dilapidated as a reminder.

Questions of doubt inevitably seeped into my relationship with my boyfriend. Why did you want to get the pill in the first place? Does this mean you don't want to have a baby with me? Why are we not thinking of a future together? What does this mean?

A month later, I left him. And I never saw him again.

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