BY: Patricia Evangelista

On paper, the sentence is imprisonment, up to six years. In the dank back rooms of Manila slums, and in the emergency wards of public hospitals, the sentence can be death. In 2008, at least 500,000 women resorted to abortion. 90,000 suffered complication. A thousand died.

The criminal was a woman. They are always women.

In the Republic of the Philippines abortion is illegal. There are no exceptions under the law. It does not matter if the woman’s life is at stake on an operating table in the Fabella Hospital. It does not matter if the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest, if the expectant mother is a nine-year-old girl in the slums of Tondo, if the fetus is expected to die within the womb and the woman with it.

That the penalty of abortion is often death is not a secret from these women. They know this. They’ve seen it happen. Women who risk death are not concerned with the legality of their actions, they are willing to push the twisted end of a plastic hanger into their uteruses; they believe they have no other choice. They may be afraid of God or death or the arm of the law, but they will carry on. The criminal penalty meant to stop abortion has not stopped millions of women; it has only stopped them from seeking help when they are bleeding into the cheap wood floors of their makeshift homes. Criminalization has pushed them into the streets of Quiapo, outside the Church of the Black Nazarene, where the voices of priests echo in prayer and tablets of Cytotec are sold six for a thousand alongside plaster statues of the Virgin Mary.

Her name is Maricel, she was eighteen and already a mother. That year she was granted a visa to work as a domestic worker overseas. She discovered she was pregnant and induced her own abortion for fear of losing her chance to support her family. It took two weeks of infection and vaginal bleeding for Maricel to decide to go to the hospital. Her story ended on the operating table. The doctors said she died of septic shock.

The Republic of the Philippines is one of the last countries in the world that continue to call every instance of termination of pregnancy a criminal act, and because it is, every woman who commits abortion commits it on her own. The Philippines has one of the highest numbers of maternal deaths in the West Pacific Region, 230 dying out of 100,000 live births, as opposed to the regional average of 82. Unsafe abortion is responsible for up to twenty percent of these deaths.

Her name is Josie, twenty-six. She went to an abortionist, who pressed down on her abdomen and thrust a fat hose up her vagina. She was in the clinic a long time. She bled. Some of the blood stank. There was blood on the bedpan, on the sheets, gushing in chunks. The blood was very red. At home, she bled for more than a week. In chunks, in gushes. She thought she would die.

Those who condemn these women point to the woman’s culpability. Whores and sluts, murderers, should have kept their legs closed if they didn’t want a child. Should have abstained. Should have been good, responsible women, should be good mothers, should take responsibility. That most of these criminal women are Catholic, married, uneducated and desperately poor does not matter to many of their critics from Church and laity. Opponents of the Reproductive Health Bill say they oppose the provision of free contraception because to permit it may lead to permitting abortion.

This is Ana, from Manila, a mother of eight, who induced an abortion after her ninth child. She said she could not use family planning, because it was unavailable. A Guttmacher study says that in Manila, where an executive order was issued banning contraception in public health centers, the incidence of abortion is higher than in any other part of the country.

This is Aileen, a mother of five, three of whom were still babies. She risked an unsafe abortion when she found out she was pregnant with her sixth.

“Only those who are better off, rich, can talk about abortion as illegal. They have no worries about raising their children... They do not know what it is like to be poor and desperate… Poor women have limited options… Everything I did was for my living children.”

This is the sort of woman they call a bad mother, a criminal who deserves to bleed to death in the corners of hospital rooms. The stigma on abortion coming from its criminalization means that when a woman who suffers after an unsafe abortion finds the courage to go to a hospital, medical personnel believe they have the right to discriminate. There is no such thing as patient confidentiality; there is no such thing as priority for those who are dying in gushes. The Jason Ivlers of the world can get their confidentiality and medical care after a shootout with the police, but in this country, the woman who aborted is the exception to the Hippocratic oath.

This is Imelda, thirty years old. She was bleeding when she arrived in the Fabella Hospital. The doctors shouted at her. They said they would call the police. They said they would not allow her to leave the hospital if they discovered she had an abortion. She was allowed to bleed without care for four hours, and was interrogated by nine different health workers while she bled.

This is Lisa, and in Gat Andres Bonifacio Memorial Medical Center, they told her she would be arrested if they proved she had aborted. They made her sign a document in English, a language she could not understand on paper. A nurse put a notebook-sized sign at the bottom of her bed with the word “abortion.” There was no chart with her name, only that one word.

Her name was Gina, and when the staff of Tondo General discovered she had aborted, she was left alone. Her back was soaked in blood. She wished someone would give her a napkin, a diaper, anything. Nobody did.

This is written in support of the decriminalization of abortion, in the hope that safe abortion will be offered for women in cases of rape and incest and risk to life, that women will no longer be ignored in emergency rooms because of who they are, that contraception will be provided so that no woman will be forced to see abortion as a choice, and that the thousands who choose the risk of back alleys and coat hangers will be called victims instead of criminals.

Call it by its name: abortion. One thousand women died bleeding in 2008, nobody was held accountable, because for some, these women deserved to die. The state holds them down; the Church watches them bleed. The criminals are not always women. The crimes are not always theirs.

They pray, these women. They believe in God, and some of them believe that God is forgiving, that God would understand. They are afraid to say their names, because they do not have the same faith in their fellow men as they do in God.


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