Bhutan: 'No lockdown but still locked in with no safe abortion access' By Wangchuk Dema
Image: Govt workers distributing free hand sanitizers. Source- The Straits Times
Although our neighboring countries are on lock down and our national borders have been closed due to Covid19, Bhutan is lucky to have not experienced an internal lockdown so far. A lot of efforts are being made by the government, private sector and the individuals in the country to fight the virus which I am truly grateful about. Public health and economy are the top priorities which I believe should be but this is also the time when a lot of other important things could get side-lined.
While some people lost (or are losing) their jobs or income, some are at risk of losing their lives more than ever because they do not have access to the help they would normally get if our borders were not closed and our neighbors were not on lockdown.
Since the law in Bhutan allows abortions only in certain conditions such as when pregnant person’s life is in danger or has severe mental illness and in cases of rape and fetal deformity, many women who want to terminate their pregnancies are not eligible for legal abortions. Even those few who are eligible but unaware about their rights in the country are also looking for ways to discontinue their pregnancies, only to find disappointment.
In ‘normal’ times they would usually cross the borders to India to buy abortion pills or go for surgical abortion. This is risky and has cost some of them their lives in the past as these surgical abortions they had were unsafe and performed by backstreet abortionists. Now in the time of the pandemic it is difficult to say which is the bigger threat---unsafe abortions across borders during other times or the lack of access to safe abortion our own country when our borders are closed!
I do believe that both are a grave issue that should be brought into the mainstream national dialogues.
In light of Covid19, the problems around safe abortion access have become more acute and have caught my attention more. Till now, honestly, besides advocating for the importance of safe abortion on social media and hearing stories of people who had abortions, I was never asked by anyone to help them get safe abortion. But now, in the last few weeks I have been approached by two young women who have sought my help to terminate their unwanted pregnancies.
Almost three weeks ago, a young man called me and shared the struggle he was going through to find some abortion pills for his girlfriend. However I wanted to find out if the girlfriend wanted to go for abortion as well and if she did not, then I would have sensitized him not to interfere with her decision over her own body and life. However the young woman who was almost over her first trimester also wanted the abortion. All of us looked for the pills and I was unable to help but fortunately, she got the pills and she had a successful medical abortion. When I asked her, what if she did not find the pills she told me that she was confident she would, even if it took some time.
The young woman in the second case has already attempted suicide a few times. I was approached by her cousin who told me they tried papaya and pineapple after getting information they got on the internet and looked for pills everywhere but was unsuccessful.
It is extremely heartbreaking to know that she has gone into depression and hits her tummy in the hope to have a miscarriage but her cousin has been giving her the assurance that they will be able to find a way.
They are still looking for the pills as I am writing this.
I have never met these young women and it is unlikely that I will. I have never asked them the reasons for choosing something that is considered so sinful in our society because they are not accountable to anyone but themselves for what they do with their body and life.
Safe abortion as a reproductive health care choice for those who do not meet legal requirements, has never been recognized as part of public health in our country and it is not a surprise that the issue of abortion has not crossed anybody’s mind at all in times of this emergency. But it is important for safe abortion to be completely legalized in order to ensure that pregnant people who wish to discontinue pregnancies are protected with safe and legal safe abortion services.
Covid19 is a public health emergency that should not look at the virus only but also other health issues that it leads to including unsafe abortion that takes away lives.
These are only two young women who reached out to me but there must be hundreds more who are desperate and in need of services. I can only hope and pray that pregnant people seeking safe abortion do not die because of lack of access to such services which should be their human right in order to ensure their own right to life, right to dignity and right to benefit from scientific progress.
Even if they die, who will know that they died of unsafe abortion?