Should Women Perform Their Own Abortions?


By J

Originally posted in Cosmopolitan

Inna Hudaya was a woman in trouble. Lying in a shoddy hotel room, she squeezed her eyes closed as an old woman performed an abortion on her with no anesthesia and no painkillers. They barely spoke a word after the exchange of money — a lot of money, money Hudaya had borrowed and for which she had sold many of her possessions including her motorbike to repay. This, Hudaya thought to herself, is how I will die.

But what else was she supposed to do? She was 22, pregnant, unmarried, and living in Indonesia, a country where abortion remains illegal in nearly all cases and out-of-wedlock pregnancy is intensely stigmatized. A medical student, Hudaya was just getting a toehold on a life she hoped would keep her out of Tasikmalaya, the conservative city she fled after high school. Having a baby would mean the end of everything: her studies, her relationship with her family, her freedom.

The procedure ended, and Hudaya walked out of the hotel room alive. The pain, though, persisted. Her relationship ended. A close relative disowned her, telling her it is a sin for a woman to kill her own blood. For years, Hudaya had the same dream: a baby chasing her, crying.

Today, it’s Hudaya whom Indonesian girls call when they’re in trouble. They usually reach one of the counselors staffing the phone lines at Samsara, an organization Hudaya founded that has walked thousands of Indonesian women though the process of ending their pregnancies safely. For Hudaya, getting here has been a path of zigs and zags, of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, of finding herself transformed from the ambitious young woman critical of her town’s conservative religiosity into a medical school dropout and a disciple of the American pro-life movement. Thirteen years after she lay on a hotel room floor sure her life was over, Inna Hudaya has shape-shifted yet again, into one of the most radical abortion activists in the world. And the model she has embraced — taking abortion out of the dominion of doctors and putting it in the hands of women — is both increasingly adopted by grassroots activists around the world and testing the fundamental values of the abortion rights movement.

Even in the United States, where abortion is broadly legal, these are the questions challenging veteran feminists and young activists alike: Should the DIY abortion be a last-ditch option, used only in the face of restrictive laws that would otherwise make the procedure impossible? Or is letting women terminate their pregnancies themselves a logical extension of the pro-choice maxim “Trust Women”?

If you’re pregnant in Indonesia and you don’t want to be, you have a few options: You can follow the law and carry your pregnancy to term. You can stroll down Jl. Raden Saleh in Jakarta, wait for a stranger to ask, “Do you want to get rid of that?” and hope he brings you to someone skilled at abortion who will charge you in rupiah and not sex. You can contact a private doctor who may do you this favor, for an astronomical cost, or try to find some black-market pills. You can do your own abortion without much information — some women use sticks, some throw themselves down stairs, some get a boyfriend or husband or friend to beat them in the stomach.

Or you can call Samsara.

Every month, counselors at the Samsara hotline field as many as 600 phone calls from 70 or 80 women. The counselors talk to callers about their options: childbirth, adoption, or abortion. They gather basic information, including the caller’s name (often fake), age, marital status, and location, and help determine the gestational age of the pregnancy. A growing number of women get information on the Samsara website. Others want more detail or a reassuring voice on the other end of the phone.

Samsara doesn’t provide abortions directly, but it keeps detailed records of reliable sources of misoprostol, a pill that induces miscarriage. If a woman doesn’t want to go the misoprostol route, counselors know which doctors are willing to perform surgical abortions. They are also well-versed in World Health Organization (WHO) protocols on how to use misoprostol, and they explain to women what to watch out for, how to deal with complications, what to tell a doctor if they have to go to the hospital, and how to make sure the abortion worked. Because Indonesia ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees the freedom to seek and impart information, Hudaya and her team hope to stay free of legal trouble. Her quest, Hudaya says, is to give women the most accurate information possible to keep them safe.

Hudaya herself didn’t have that privilege. In the four painful years following her own abortion, she searched for help online, coming up largely empty in her home country. Then she found websites of American pro-life groups, promising to help women relieve post-abortion grief, soothe emotional and spiritual wounds, and find healing, joy, and forgiveness after abortion. She emailed them, and the informal care they offered set her on the path to recovery.

Hudaya started Samsara to provide Indonesian women with the kind of post-abortion counseling she received from those pro-life ministries. But the more women called the hotline, and the more Hudaya talked with women’s rights advocates from around the world, the more she began to doubt the pro-life model. She also began researching pregnancy development and, having never had formal sex education, was stunned to see that a six-week-old embryo — the point at which she had her own abortion — looked nothing like the gruesome photos she saw on pro-life websites, and nothing like the crying baby that flashed through her dreams.

At a training in 2009, Hudaya heard about the concepts of human rights and gender equality for the first time. “Not everyone will end up the same like us if they go through abortion,” she said. “And actually, if they can have safe abortion, they don’t need to go through this depression. I think that was the turning point [for me] from pro-life into pro-choice.”