IFFP, the International Planned Parenthood Federation, has launched a new series of short films as part of its Girls Decide: for choice on sex and pregnancy initiative.
The Girls Decide films share the stories of girls in Albania, Argentina, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Swaziland and Syria and their journeys to make decisions about sex, sexuality, pregnancy, HIV, abortion and relationships.
To coincide with the launch, Abortion Rights is publishing a first-hand account from a young British woman of her experiences seeking abortion and contraception in Chile. This is a new departure for us, and we are delighted to be able to bring you this insight from one of the world’s harshest anti-abortion regimes.
‘V’s story: reproductive choice in Chile
“I fell pregnant in August 2008, while I was living and Chile and volunteering for a women’s rights organisation. I’d always been interested in working towards improved equality for my gender in a continent that I loved, but probably only became fully aware of the extent of the disparity in equality between Latin America and Europe through my own involvement in the topic.
Starting from the beginning – it is very difficult to get contraceptive pills in Chile. They can be bought without a prescription, so your doctor won’t need to know what ‘dirty deeds’ you plan to get up to. But where a doctor hasn’t been able to refuse your request, many of the pharmacists feel that they can lend a hand. My first attempt went like this:
Me: Hello, do you stock microgynon 30 pills here?
Pharmacist: (Disparaging look and palpable disapproval) No.
Me: Ok, do you have something that might work as an alternative? I need something low dosage.
Pharmacist: We have this brand. Have you taken it before?
Me: No, but if you think that’s the closest to the one I’m asking for, I’m willing to try it.
Pharmacist: No, I’m afraid I can’t sell this to you.
Me: Why not?
Pharmacist: It really doesn’t seem like you know what you want.
That last bit could have been as much about my Spanish as my request for contraception. But with an abrupt goodbye and a seamless move on to serve the next customer, I was packed on my way. The pharmacy across the street wasn’t much better.
Me: Hello, can you tell me which contraceptive pills you stock, please
Pharmacist: (Impatiently) Yes, we have this brand, this brand, this brand, this brand…….(it’s at this point that I tailed off – I don’t think I could have kept up with her speed of light reeling off the list even if it had been in my native tongue)
Me: Do you perhaps have a list?
A more hardened linguist might have tried to muddle through it, but my instinct sensed that they weren’t willing to help me. The organisation I was volunteering with stocked credit card sized packs of instructions on which pills could be taken to function like the morning after pill (which isn’t readily available in Chile), so many pharmacies are wise to questioning. God knows you couldn’t actually be interested in what you’re putting into your body. So this was the first barrier.
I didn’t have a boyfriend at the time, so I gave up on my pill quest. But it was just a little while later that I met someone I did want to have sex with. So did he. So we did. The condom we used broke. Trying to buy the morning after pill led to much the same experience as trying to get contraceptive pills – point blank refusal.
You can’t buy the morning after pill without a prescription in Chile. At the time, we were campaigning for it to be available without a prescription consistently across the country, as the upcoming Mayoral elections in all regions gave us the opportunity to see candidates’ manifestoes. It seemed that its future availability was largely down to the religious and political beliefs of each region’s Mayor. We organised a protest at a political event, where the left wing president was going to be in attendance. The response we got from the crowds present could fall quite neatly into two categories – people who gave an ‘I know what you’re up to’ look of disdain and men who gave an ‘I know what you’re up to’ look of delight.
At a later event, where I helped to give out leaflets for Women’s Day, demanding reproductive rights for women in Latin American and the Caribbean, we were called murderers. Mostly by other women. I heard a few months after I left Chile that the campaign achieved a massive victory, and the morning after pill was made available in pharmacies across the country. Great news for Chilean women in the future, but at the time, I gave up without seeing a doctor for that all important prescription, and hoped everything would be ok. Lesson firmly learned.
A few days later, I remember just knowing I was pregnant. I reverted to immature behaviour – denial – even when the physical give-aways started to become more obvious. I confided in a friend when my period was about two weeks late and we bought a pregnancy test. TV had taught me that there’s about a two minute wait, the line for negative pops up and there’s relief all round. But when you’re that far gone, the positive signs pulses out of its window, strong as an ox, within milliseconds, and you’re left clinging on to the idea that if you wait two minutes, it might just change back.
I was genuinely delighted to know I was pregnant. I think I was going through my first cycle of broodiness (I hear they come every five years) and the idea that my body was able to create something so wonderful as another life, left me over the moon. You couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. But then, over the next few days, I thought about it. Then I thought about it a bit more; I was working illegally. I was earning about enough to keep myself in a student’s lifestyle, where healthcare and a decent education don’t come cheap. If I went home, I’d probably have to rely on benefits. The baby’s father didn’t want me to have it. Now just wasn’t the time.
I firmly believe in a woman’s right to choose. For me, just one of those things would have had to have been the case for a woman to justify considering an abortion. My parents are divorced, my sister has raised her son alone, so I have perhaps quite idealistic views about how I want to bring a child into the world and I wasn’t in that situation – far from it.
So I found an international organisation called Women on Web, who send the medication necessary for a non surgical abortion anywhere in the world. Their ability to do so comes from the fact that both components are used legitimately in other areas of medicine – one to treat stomach ulcers in men and the other to induce contractions in a pregnant woman. It cost me around £55 – fine for me, probably not so fine for Chilean women with lower incomes, who might be lucky to earn £300 a month.
I spent the next two weeks waiting for the medicines to arrive, worrying that they wouldn’t get past strict Chilean border control checks. I was also marvelling at the changes in my body, both excited by the prospect that pregnancy and motherhood could happen to insignificant me, but crushed by the idea that I couldn’t, and probably shouldn’t, dwell on the happy aspects for too long.
I (discreetly) spoke to Chilean friends about their thoughts on abortion in their country and nearly all had a story about a friend who had to have an illegal abortion. I generally found that even something as cloak and dagger as that was, again, accessible to the rich and not to the poor. But it showed that it was very much spoken about within trusted circles, but never in the media or political spheres.
Arguably the worst parallel was with the women I met as part of my volunteer role, who were campaigning for legal abortions for those who had been the victims of rape, for women who’s babies wouldn’t survive outside of the womb and for women who themselves could die bringing the baby to term. I heard that Chile was just one of three countries in the world where abortion was prohibited regardless of the circumstances, in a country that considers itself the only developed nation in a continent of developing ones. Many of these women were several months pregnant, but with the knowledge that their babies would die as soon as they were born. I can’t imagine how heartbreaking that must be to know, let alone to have to live though, day in, day out, for nine whole months.
Needless to say, my abortion itself was painful. But, clearly, those memories faded faster than the feelings of shame, guilt, regret towards letting the situation get so far, and absolute disappointment. Throughout it all and even now, it’s my dirty secret. It shouldn’t be – I’m not a murderer who enjoyed the experience; I’m a responsible young woman who is grateful to have the choice over when to become a mother, so I can give my children everything they need, in a stable environment that will ensure they grow up to be the best they can be. I wouldn’t say that my Chilean counterparts have the same choice. And until abortion stops being a taboo word there, they don’t stand a chance.”