What It’s Like To Get An Illegal Abortion In Malaysia
The first time I heard about someone getting an abortion was in secondary school. It was a rumor whispered to me during recess: The school slut who supposedly fucked her best friend’s boyfriend while the poor girl slept in the same room already had an abortion at 16. Actually, she had three. So not only was she a slut, she was also stupid enough to not use protection.
It was a stunning piece of gossip, even by our cruel teenage standards. I thought about it from time to time after that. How did she feel when she found out? What if she had kept them? Malaysia, where I grew up, is a Muslim country where abortion is severely legally restricted — not to mention the massive cultural taboo. Where did people even go to get this taken care of, I wondered? I had so many questions, but they were all theoretical. I thought myself too bright, too bold, and too lucky to let something so filthy happen to me.
Years later, when I got pregnant and had my own abortion at 19, I got all the answers.
Julian and I dated for close to a year. It was an emotionally volatile relationship. He was four years older, had tattoos and a sick scar from a motorcycle accident, smoked cigarettes, was fond of alcohol, and had a violently jealous streak. He bought me clothes, took me places, and held me when I smoked my first joint and thought I was dying. We fought in public often, screaming profanities at each other in front of families trying to have a nice meal. We also fucked like rabbits, and always without protection because pulling out worked.
Until one month my period didn’t come. Naturally, I assumed the worst and went to get a pregnancy test. My friend came with me, and he waited outside the smelly public bathroom in the mall near my house as I watched the second blue strip on the test materialize. Yes, stupid, you are with child, it said. “With child.” I felt almost nauseated, turning those words over in my head as I stared at the black wet stains on the tiled floor. You fucked up.
I came out of the bathroom with tears spilling down my face. I don’t remember much else that happened that day, except taking another test and having the full weight of the pregnancy crush me. But there was no question about what would happen next: I was getting an abortion. It didn’t matter how.
In the United States, despite the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision declaring abortion a fundamental right, there has been a surge of efforts to clamp down on abortion rights. In the past five years alone, since Tea Party Republicans swept into office during the midterm elections, close to 300 abortion restrictions have been enacted by state legislatures across the country. That accounts for more than a quarter of abortion restrictions in all of Roe v. Wade’s 43 years of existence.
By placing unnecessary requirements on abortion providers and instituting provisions like mandatory ultrasounds, waiting periods, and counseling sessions for women seeking abortions, conservative lawmakers — many of them old, white cis men — are making it more difficult for American women to exercise the right to control their own bodies. Perhaps the worst of this is taking place in Texas, where the passage of House Bill 2 in 2013 placed unreasonably burdensome regulations on abortion clinics. Today, only 10 abortion clinics remain in the country’s second largest state, forcing women in Texas to travel farther and pay more money for abortions. HB2 is currently being challenged in the Supreme Court, but in the meantime a growing number of Texas women are turning to alternative methods, like misoprostol or Cytotec, an abortion-inducing pill that Latin American women have long relied on.
In developing countries, this level of desperation is nothing new. Each year, an estimated 21.6 million women worldwide undergo an unsafe abortion, and of those, 18.5 million are in developing countries. Nearly 7 million women in developing regions are treated for complications from unsafe abortions every year, according to the latest estimate. Almost all unsafe abortions, and almost all abortion-related deaths, occur in developing countries with restrictive abortion laws. In Malaysia, the mortality rate from abortion is about 45 times higher than the rate in the U.S.
I was privy to none of this information; I did not even consider the statistical probability of my death from an illegal abortion. I did have a split second of hesitation when I thought of what might happen if we were caught. Jail time? A fine? The humiliation that will follow me around until the end of time? But the dreadful prospect of me, still a baby at 19, having my own baby, overshadowed everything else.
Julian’s dad knew someone who performed abortions for a few hundred Ringgit. The doctor estimated how far along I was based on how dark the lines were on the pregnancy test he made me take. “You should have been more careful,” he chided.
He sent me to a women’s clinic nearby for an ultrasound, during which I broke down, and then we returned to schedule an appointment for the procedure. Throughout the entire process, this male doctor did not once look me in the eye, choosing instead to speak to Julian as if I wasn’t in the room. As if it wasn’t my body we were talking about. As if the abortion was more a concern of this scared young man than it was for the scared teenage girl who would be the one undergoing the procedure.
I borrowed money from my friend to pay for my share of the abortion. In the weeks leading up to it, I kept up appearances with family and friends. I went to all my classes and laughed at bad jokes, all the while summoning up a steely determination about what I was going to do. Would I recover quickly? How disappointed would my parents be if they found out? Would anyone want to have sex with me again if they knew how dirty I was? And I did feel unclean, my body contaminated by an intruder that had no place in me. I smoked more cigarettes and drank more alcohol and hit my stomach repeatedly, willing the pregnancy to go away on its own.
Studies have shown that strict abortion laws do not lead to fewer abortions. In countries where the procedure is illegal or highly restrictive, the most recent data put the average annual abortion rate at 37 per 1,000 women of childbearing age. Where abortion is legal, that rate is 34 per 1,000 women.
Yet the impact of restrictive abortion laws is significant. The laws don’t deter people from having unprotected sex, nor do they convince more women to carry to term, but they do drive women to seek out other, potentially dangerous methods to end their pregnancies. Without regulation and legal guidelines, abortions are frequently life-threatening.
In the U.S., pre-Roe v. Wade, women resorted to desperately dangerous methods to terminate unintended pregnancies, ingesting turpentine, detergents, bleach, and various herbal teas. Toxic chemicals and foreign objects (including coat hangers, bicycle spokes, rubber catheters, even chicken bones) were inserted into vaginas. These horror stories are a thing of the past, but older physicians remember them vividly.
When New York decriminalized abortion in 1970, the effect was drastic and immediate: the state’s maternal mortality rate dropped a staggering 45 percent the next year.
Restrictive abortion laws also carry a racial tinge. Black women, already with little access to contraception and reproductive care, have higher rates of unwanted pregnancies. They are less likely to be insured and more likely to die of pregnancy-related complications than their white counterparts. And laws like HB2 have a disproportionately large impact on them.
What does reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies is better access to contraception and comprehensive sex education — two factors contributing to the decrease in teen pregnancies and subsequently, a decline in abortion rates. But developing countries with restrictive abortion laws tend to lack these things, too. More than 80 percent of abortions in developing countries occur among women who need, but can’t access, modern contraceptive methods.
My own lack of sex education, my raging hormones, and my ignorance about contraception (even after the procedure, I took the morning after pill as birth control for months), made up the holy trifecta that resulted in my unwanted pregnancy. With better education — any sex education, even — the whole thing could have just been a bad dream.
Until this day, I don’t know what my abortion entailed, exactly; it was never explained. I know my legs were spread apart on an operating bed before I went under. I woke up groggy, a sanitary pad shoved in between my legs. Many illegal abortions result in infertility, infection, sometimes death. I did not get an infection and I did not die, but I don’t know if it has affected my ability to bear children, and at this point in my life I don’t know if I’m ready to find out.
I’ve told only a handful of friends and boyfriends, my eyes averted in shame the few times I’ve said, “I had an abortion at 19.” But I’ve felt nothing but gratitude for it in the years since. Had I been pressured out of it, or relented when I saw the 6-week old fetus during the ultrasound, had my body carried it to term and then be ripped apart when it pushed itself out of me, I would have stayed in Malaysia, a single mom at 19 and a life centered around something I never wanted in the first place.
Today, I live in a city I used to dream about, with a college degree, a job, weird, wonderful friends, and the ability to make all the selfish decisions I want. I can fuck up and recover without ruining the life of a child. I have no more connection with a man whose temper terrified me. My abortion gave me the chance to have the life I wanted, and many women will continue to make the same choice I did — regardless of whether the law allows it or not.