Looking for safe abortion in the Philippines

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Abortion is illegal in the Philippines. A Filipina recounts what she went through in search for a safe abortion. Illustration by CHE BANTAYAN

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — I had unprotected sex with a man I met during one night out, after eight tequila shots to be exact.

He didn’t come anywhere near me, so I felt safe. I was not on birth control pills, however, so to be sure, I took four Yasmin pills at 5 p.m. the following day and another four tablets of Yasmin 12 hours later. This four-and-four birth control tablet-taking is known to be an alternative for “Plan B” since the actual Plan B tablet is not available in the Philippines. This method is said to be most effective when done within 72 hours after unprotected sex.

For the unfamiliar, the Plan B pill is a morning-after pill that is meant to lower your chance of getting pregnant after engaging in unprotected sex. Emergency contraceptives are already available in most countries, which women can get over-the-counter or without needing prescription, depending on the nation’s laws. The Philippines is joined by countries like North Korea, UAE, Sudan, East Timor, and Western Sahara, among others, in the list of countries where morning-after pills are outlawed.

After a bit of research, sifting through online forums, reddit, WebMD, and all other not entirely reputable websites, I read one user saying that Yasmin used as a four-and-four emergency pill is not backed by research, and only certain birth control pills (those with the hormones ethinyl estradiol and levonorgestrel; Yasmin had drospirenone and ethinyl estradiol) can be used for this method.

In the ‘70s, when emergency pills were not yet available, women all over would use this method, which they called the Yuzpe method. But again, it is only effective when taking certain brands. In the Philippines, according to my friends and friends who are doctors, what can be used for the Yuzpe method are Trust pills.

After learning that Yasmin may not be effective, I panicked. I suddenly retraced every sexual position that boy and I had. I wrote every single detail of where his penis was based on my memory: in my mouth, inside my vagina, around my hand, in my mouth, on my face, inside my vagina, around my hand. My neurosis went a little bit too far that I convinced myself I might be pregnant. I knew I had to do something about the situation so I self-diagnosed (not recommended) and thought that maybe if I take 12 tablets of Trust pills I would be safe.

So I did. And then the next day, in a wave of new panic, I took another, and then another. After five days, I would have already taken 32 pills thanks to my growing paranoia.

I cried almost everyday, I was almost always dazed at work and would walk around the city staring at nothing in particular. I felt helpless but also firm in my knowledge that a baby at this point in my life was not what I wanted, much less needed.

I called a friend who’s a doctor and told her what happened. I asked if I should continue taking birth control pills everyday since I was still sort of seeing the boy. She told me that I should take it normally, which is one pill a day. Essentially, I had 32 pills in my system and then started taking one pill a day. Again, to be really safe.

Two weeks later, I felt so many changes in my body. My breasts were heavier, I felt bloated, I think I may have seen spotting at some point (sometimes I’m not sure anymore if I was being delusional). I took a pregnancy test but it was too early for the test to show any credible conclusion. But just to appease myself, I took a pregnancy test every single day. I’m pretty sure the lady at the pharmacy thought I was too eager to have a baby because I would always buy one with a big smile on my face to hide my anxiety.  

Ten pregnancy tests later, my breasts were starting to feel really tender and so I was convinced I had a fetus growing in my uterus. At this point, I knew I didn’t want to have a baby and I also knew I needed to know the next steps for terminating the pregnancy. It may sound as though it was an easy resolve, but trust me, I cried almost everyday, I was almost always dazed at work and would walk around the city staring at nothing in particular. I felt helpless but also firm in my knowledge that a baby at this point in my life was not what I wanted, much less needed.

Abortion it is, I thought.

Every night before sleeping, I read stories online of how women went through with it, what they felt afterwards, and how they coped with it. I looked at lists of celebrities who have owned their abortions and thought maybe I can also be like them, be an advocate someday.

I chanced upon the website womenonwaves.org, which is a Dutch organization that assists women who want abortions across the globe. They have another website called womenonweb.org where they detail support systems that women can get in their home countries — from women’s rights groups to women-centric health clinics. Their service also includes sending abortive pills to countries where it is not available.

I clicked on the Philippines and there came a deluge of stories from Filipinas who shared their experiences. There’s one story where she got her abortive pills through this website, and did the procedure alone in her apartment. There’s one story saying that she got an abortion with the help of a local nonprofit group. There’s another story about aborting herself through herbs, massaging, and “other methods.” The Filipinas had different ways and tales, but they almost all felt the same: confused, helpless, guilty, sad, fearful.

I once went to an OB-GYN at a prominent medical center here and it was as though even talking about contraceptive pills was appalling. I could sense the doctor’s judgment when I asked about copper IUD as an emergency method. “I don’t recommend it,” she said bluntly and moved on.

It is heart-wrenching to read their confessions, the struggles and dark depths that women have to go through just to have a choice, not made easier by the conditioned guilt and shame. I, for one, even if I wasn’t sure if I were indeed pregnant, pictured all the judgment, the brokenheartedness that I felt I had to feel because I planned to terminate a pregnancy. I went so far as feeling that maybe I am evil and that I was just meant to rot in hell.

This whole ordeal was even more torturous because I didn’t know who to talk to because again of the shame, the crippling embarrassment of feeling stupid enough to not use a condom, and of feeling callous enough to resolve to have an abortion.

I wanted a plan in place. I told myself that the moment I miss my period and I test positive, I wanted to know the exact next steps so I could just be on autopilot and get on with it. After finding Women On Waves, I listed down my options:

Plan A: Go to all the health clinics that were listed on the website and hope that they can point me towards a safe abortionist. I read that there is a group of underground doctors who do this work.

Plan B: Buy the abortive pills online. The website looks sketchy but the information on how to DIY abortion via pills is well-detailed.

Plan C: Go to Cambodia, to Marie Stopes International hospital to be exact, and do the procedure there. It’s legal in Cambodia and I should be taken care of properly by those trained for it. A big con obviously is the cost of having to go there.

Plan A was a dud, but mainly because I got so scared and ashamed. I called one of the organizations listed on womenonwaves.org, then asked if I could be assisted regarding a query I had about emergency pills (I was so terrified to even ask about abortion). This women’s organization then referred me to a clinic (which happen to also be on the Women on Waves website). I went to one of the health clinics and told them about the excess pills I took..

The people in the clinic were very accommodating. I didn’t feel judged at all. I once went to an OB-GYN at a prominent medical center here and it was as though even talking about contraceptive pills was appalling. I could sense the doctor’s judgment when I asked about copper IUD as an emergency method. “I don’t recommend it,” she said bluntly and moved on.

This health clinic, however, was very patient with me. I felt safe talking about every single thing that happened with the guy and my worry of being pregnant. I was hoping the suggestion of an abortion will come from them, from one of the nurses, but of course, the A word didn’t come out from either of our mouths.

After that encounter, I thought that getting any Filipino organization or individual is probably a bad idea. It’s just an added anxiety to me — what are they thinking about my decision? Should I get an abortion, will they tell anybody? Why should I trust them?

So I proceeded to work on Plan B, the website selling abortive pills. What happens is you message the number they advertise on their website about your request. I asked how much it cost to buy Misopostrol and Mifepristone, and then they quickly replied for me to answer the following questions: last menstruation, first pregnancy, allergies to medications, illness that they need to know, my age, and pregnancy results.

I started thinking about how ridiculous it is that I’ve had to go through all of this just to have a procedure that is readily available in other countries, in countries that can give emotional support as well to women who may simply not be ready to become mothers.

I told them I didn’t have pregnancy results yet and asked if I should confirm that I was really pregnant. They didn’t reply. Were they sick of paranoid and neurotic women like me? Who knows.

And so I moved to Plan C, as in Plan Cambodia. Marie Stopes International is an internationally renowned organization that support women who want to undergo an abortion. I emailed them about my case and they responded promptly with a form that I should fill up that would help them know what the best method for me is.

Usually, if you’re 4 weeks in or less, they’ll just use abortive pills. More than 6 weeks in and that’s when they use the surgical procedure — the kind of abortion that our Catholic schools let us see photos and videos of when we were in high school to really show us that it looks like a murder of a child. It costs US$150 for the procedure, or ₱7,500, but of course that excludes the plane ride which, when I checked, was around ₱15,000 for a roundtrip. I also needed to take into consideration food, transport, and lodging costs for a couple of days. Overall, I would have had to prepare at least ₱30,000 to be safe.

Another cost is that I would have had to return to Cambodia two weeks after the procedure for a follow-up checkup — that’s another plane ride and another couple of days in another country, so let’s say ₱60,000. I was set to spend that much though and I’m lucky enough to have that amount ready. I knew I was in an extremely privileged position of even knowing I had options.

I started thinking about how ridiculous it is that I’ve had to go through all of this just to have a procedure that is readily available in other countries, in countries that can give emotional support as well to women who may simply not be ready to become mothers.

I started feeling incredibly sorry and angry for the many women in the Philippines whose lives had to be in danger because they don’t have plans A, B, or C; for the many Filipinas who’ve had to endure being told what they should do with their bodies by judgmental OB-GYNs, by men in power, by our health system, by Catholic schools, by the law, by friends, by their own families.

All of this paranoia happened within the span of two weeks. I was expecting my period on the first day of October and as if on cue, blood came rushing out my vagina first thing in the morning of that day. I bought another pregnancy kit and tested negative.

The thought of being actually pregnant and getting an abortion scared me out of my wits and threw me into the deepest depths of anxiety. I can’t imagine what it must feel like for those who’ve had to go through with an abortion in a country where medical and psychological support is scarce and hypocrisy and judgment is aplenty.