I was in so much pain, but when I woke up, it was all over. The doctor gave me a kiss and told me not to worry, that everything was going to be ok.
It was my second pregnancy. I already had a two-year-old son and I was really excited about this second pregnancy. As many women do, I didn’t tell anyone I was pregnant until after the first three months. The ultrasound at week 12 worried the obstetrician and he sent me for further tests, including an amniocentesis procedure.
It took a week for the results to arrive. I received a phone call while I was walking on Paraguay and Alem street. It was the director of the medical centre where I had the tests done. He told me to sit down and then go straight to the clinic, and that it would be better if someone could go with me. My worst nightmare came true: the test found a genetic disorder, trisomy 18, known as Edwards syndrome. It meant that the pregnancy was not viable. In the unlikely case that the pregnancy reached full term, the baby could not survive more than a few hours outside the womb.
I didn’t break down straight away. I couldn’t. The tears wouldn’t come. The doctor said that it would be good for me to cry, that I shouldn’t worry because in a case like this I would be sure to find someone to help me. I felt desperate, but acted calm. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to bear waiting for the pregnancy to advance and have the baby only to watch it die. I decided to abort before the fetus developed any further. No sense in prolonging the tragic outcome.
But abortion is not legal in Argentina. My obstetrician was away on holiday. So I called the doctor covering for him, Dr B., and I went to see him at his clinic on Santa Fe and Callao avenue. Everyone in the clinic seemed happy. Everyone but me. Dr B. looked at the test results, listened to me and smiled. I didn’t know why he was smiling. He asked me if I knew that my pregnancy was also high-risk, in terms of my health. I had a fibroid larger than 10cm. As the pregnancy advanced there would be health complications. He smiled. Then he told me that he had seen other patients with cases of Edwards syndrome, and that in all those cases he had told his patients that the best option was to carry on with the pregnancy, to give birth and be able to hold their dead babies. He said that if this was God’s will then I had to accept it and I shouldn’t worry, because God would be with me when I gave birth to a lifeless baby and in case of any complications. God. Not a doctor, or the health system. That was what Dr B. said to me. Long after, I recognized him among the doctors in Congress, speaking out against the legalization of abortion. The same person who had advised me to carry my pregnancy to term only to watch the baby die.
I left the clinic overwhelmed. With each minute that passed my desperation grew but no, I couldn’t cry.
I urgently needed to find a place where I could have an abortion. It was right before the Carnival holidays. As always, a network of friends who wanted to help got together. My family did what they could. I told them that the first doctor had been right, that it couldn’t be too difficult to get access to an abortion if there was no way for the baby to survive if the pregnancy continued, and if I was at risk. But it wasn’t that simple. People gave me recommendations and addresses. Names of doctors on pieces of paper. Someone suggested that I should consider travelling to the US or Uruguay, where abortion is legal, because a clandestine abortion is not ideal for a high-risk pregnancy. But I didn’t know what they were talking about. I just wanted it all to be over and to go back to my normal life caring for my son, working, crying, living.
I was recommended a specialist doctor: Dr N. I called him and suddenly was filled with hope. He seemed to be moved. He agreed to see us in his clinic on Pueyrredón avenue even though it was during a public holiday. I was hopeful that someone had been moved by my case and so all of this would soon be over. We arrived at the clinic. I saw him and immediately had a bad feeling about him. Something didn’t seem right. I felt cheated. The first thing Dr N. did was boast about how good his ultrasound equipment was, and that he had a unique method of removing embryos. His ultrasound picked up the fibroid that meant that the pregnancy was high-risk, and he told me. I looked away, not wanting to see anything. But he asked me, “Did you know that you are expecting a little girl? She has hydrocephalus and heart problems. She is suffering a great deal.” I felt like I wanted to die. He told me that my only option was to have him perform the abortion, with his method which consisted of injecting a substance into the uterus to end the life of the fetus. Inject me to get to the fetus. He said that it was the only option, that if I had an abortion anywhere else that I could die and leave my two-year-old son an orphan. Just like that. So to avoid another tragedy I only had to pay him in dollars, and lots of them. I don’t remember how much it was, but I didn’t have it. We didn’t have it. I couldn’t think.
I called another of the doctors covering for my obstetrician and told him. He said that if I did what Dr N. was suggesting and had a complication, he would give the order for me not to be treated. That I could get an infection, that he had never heard of anything like it. He was outraged. I told him not to worry, that I didn’t have the money anyway and I was outraged too.
I started to get desperate. I hated Dr N. but I couldn’t stand spending another day like this. I was right around my birthday. I decided to go away to an isolated cabin in Capilla del Señor, to spend the weekend there without having to see anyone. That way I would also have an excuse not to answer the phone. I spent my birthday crying as the tears finally fell. I didn’t want my son to see. I wanted to play with him, and kept thinking that maybe this was all a bad dream.
It would be crazy to try and find that kind of money. The day after my birthday I carried on the search for places to get an abortion. I went to a house in Vicente López where I had to enter through the garage. By then I was willing to try anything. The woman there told me what I would have to say in case the police came or there was an inspection. Some lie, I don’t remember what it was. I felt like I was in a movie, hiding from the police. I asked if I could go to the bathroom so I didn’t have to listen to her. It was dirty. There was blood in the toilet. They really didn’t take care of anything, I thought. I wanted to run away. I ran.
I really couldn’t take any more. I still had a few addresses left. I got my hopes up when a friend called and told me that there was in a hospital in Greater Buenos Aires where there was a group of doctors who would perform abortions in cases where the pregnancy was not viable. I spoke to a doctor there but she told me that I would need a legal certificate because the doctors there were scared, because every so often there were complaints brought against them. I knew that that would take a lot longer. And I couldn’t take it anymore.
The doctor from the test centre, the good one, the humane one, asked to see me again to check how everything was. In the examination, it turned out that the fetus was already dead. It had only been two days since I had seen the doctor who had wanted to charge me thousands of dollars, maybe its heart had even already stopped beating by then. There was no way to know. I was devastated but thought that maybe it was the beginning of the end of the nightmare.
But it wasn’t. My obstetrician returned from holiday and told me that I would need a curettage, but that he couldn’t perform it at the clinic where he worked unless I was admitted with heavy bleeding. He prescribed me misoprostol, which used to be sold for gastric treatment until its abortive effects were discovered. Once I began to bleed and expel the fetus, then I would be able to go to the clinic and he could complete the procedure. But I had to be careful. I had to be bleeding enough for them to admit me as an emergency but not so much that I would bleed out. As it was, the fibroid could cause that.
I did what I was told. I understood but at the same time didn’t understand why I still had to act clandestinely. I needed help and support, not to be acting outside the law.
The pain began, contractions and an enormous loss of blood. The pain was so bad, in all possible ways, that I wondered if I was now bleeding too much. Now I could go to the clinic. The doctor who admitted me said worriedly that I was losing too much blood, far too much blood, and got my obstetrician to come straight away because it seemed that the situation was getting worse. The obstetrician finally arrived, and the long-awaited anaesthetic. I slept.
When I woke up it was all over. The doctor gave me a kiss and told me not to worry, that everything was going to be ok. I felt as though I had been through hell, but at least I was alive.
I soon fell pregnant again. This time everything was ok, my daughter was born by caesarean section at eight months, because they didn’t want to run the risk of waiting for a natural birth. Throughout the pregnancy and during the first few months of my daughter’s life I began to have terrible panic attacks. My mind and body had not managed to return to normal and were still suffering from the pain inflicted on them from the time when rather than receive the medical and institutional help and support I needed, I found myself jumping into an abyss without a safety net.
When I slept I would have nightmares about Dr N. and Dr B. I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome. I got through it thanks to a huge number of people, particularly a brilliant therapist and my children.
For a long time, I thought: someday I want to tell this whole story, because it didn’t just happen to me, it happens all the time. The people who go through it know that, the people who make a business out of it know it, and those in the healthcare system know it too. At the same time, I wasn’t sure about telling the story, because in the terrible world of clandestine abortions where women die due to lack of care, where girls who are raped are denied abortions, to survive this experience is something of a success story.
I am now filled with hope and excitement at the possibility of abortion being legalized by Congress. I feel as though these green scarves that we see in the streets tied to the backpacks of young girls, to our bags, around our necks and wrists are a sign that the time has arrived. Time to put an end to the journeys into a clandestine world, that so many must face, with all its possible side effects, the pain of the journey leading to death for so many. The condemning — in all senses of the word — of the women who have to or decide to abort. The torture faced by girls and teenagers who are raped and then forced to carry their pregnancies to term.
And I cannot stop thinking about Dr B. Especially after seeing him in Congress arguing in favour of the right to life. He who denied help to a woman with a high-risk pregnancy in a case of therapeutic abortion. I keep thinking about the cruelty of Dr N. too and I still can’t remember how much he wanted us to pay.
I listen to Claudia Piñeiro in Congress talking about one of the books that has most moved me in my life, The Cider House Rules by John Irving. She says that we cannot allow those who are anti-rights to take ownership of the word “life”.
I go to my computer, ready to write. I doubt myself, what if my children read this? But then I feel so desperate at the thought of them growing up in a country capable of sentencing women and girls to death by not providing them with access to legal abortion. I take courage and write, keeping the promise I made myself back then to give myself strength: one day I will tell this story. I don’t want anyone else to have to go through this.
Should I publish it or not? I don’t want to hurt anyone. I’m sorry if I have upset anyone. But I feel there is a lot at stake right now.
Friends encourage me, as if holding my hand, as they did back then. So here it is.
I am just one more green scarf looking to Congress and asking them to vote to legalize abortion.