50.50: Opinion

My abortion was legal. But the doctors acted like I was committing a crime

I assumed that getting an abortion would be easy in North Macedonia. But I was judged and patronised at every turn

Katerina Topalova
11 May 2022, 12.01am

'Stereotypes about abortion still exist in my country in the 21st century.' | Illustration by Inge Snip for openDemocracy. All rights reserved

Four years ago, my partner and I were hit with the shock of an unplanned pregnancy. At the time, we had a three-year-old daughter, and another baby did not fit with our life plans. We decided to have an abortion.

I thought this wouldn’t be too difficult because abortion is legal in my home country, North Macedonia. A person can request one during the first 12 weeks of their pregnancy, and, in special circumstances, up to 22 weeks. The health service is obliged to react accordingly and provide all the necessary care.

So, the day after finding out I was pregnant, I visited my gynaecologist and informed her of my decision. Much to my surprise, she spent the next 40 minutes asking questions and trying to dissuade me, warning that I “may regret my decision”.

“You know, three years after the first birth is the ideal period to have a second child,” she said. “Each abortion could cause issues for further pregnancies.”

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While I appreciated her efforts to explain all the risks involved, I repeatedly told her that I was already informed and still wanted the abortion.

“Fine. Your body, your choice. Although there is time to change your mind!” she said, clearly disappointed.

I hoped her response would be a one-off and that there would be no more difficulties in pursuing what was, of course, a personal choice. But when I arrived at the private hospital where I had decided to have the abortion to avoid a longer wait, I was met with a stony silence.

The doctor asked if I was certain. Yes, I said, my decision was final. Silence again.

I told myself that this was better than more efforts to change my mind.

He explained the procedure and told me that, according to the law, I had to first attend counselling and then wait three days before I could have the abortion.

'Look at all these women who can’t get pregnant for years'

A few days later, I found myself in a corridor full of women, some pregnant and some not. It turned out appointments for IVF, genetic tests, and the pre-abortion counselling were all held at the same place.

I entered a dark room, where a young doctor sat across me. “Why?” she asked.

“Why do you want to have an abortion? Did you see the women outside who is struggling to get pregnant?

“Do you know that there is a risk of not getting pregnant again after the abortion? You are young, think about it, why would you interrupt the pregnancy?”

I felt this was an unfair attempt at emotional manipulation, and refused to answer. I pleaded with her to understand that I had already made my decision.

But she continued to make notes and, as I left the surgery, a doctor told me: “Look at all those women who cannot get pregnant for years and think how lucky you are for carrying a new life in your body. Think about it, it is not too late.”

I thought, God, is making a decision for my life and my future such a sin?

After three days of feeling like the world’s biggest sinner, I went to the hospital. I was by this point exhausted by the whole thing.

Feeling fragile, desolate and sinful, I lay down on the abortion chair. Three doctors were in the room. The silence was interrupted by the anaesthetist, who asked: “You know what you are doing, don’t you?” Tears rolled down my cheek as I fell asleep.

I woke up confused about where I was. “Are you awake?” a female voice asked. “If you are fine, call somebody to come and pick you up, it is finished.”

“Will a doctor come to visit me?” I asked. “No,” she responded.

My partner came to collect me – mostly, I realised, because the hospital needed him to pay.

The law is not a guarantee against stigma

My emotional ordeal was over. But I couldn’t believe what people seeking an abortion were being put through by medical professionals – or how the whole secret performance was being hidden from society.

One thing was clear to me: just because something is legal does not mean it is free from stigma. Stereotypes about abortion still exist in my country in the 21st century.

Amid the many opinions about abortion, there is one undeniable fact: it is a necessary part of healthcare. The World Health Organization provides clear directions that medical professionals must respect a pregnant person’s decision to have an abortion, and perform the procedure without delay.

In 2019, under pressure from numerous rights organisations, North Macedonia adopted a new abortion law, which banned the mandatory counselling and the subsequent three-day wait. It recognised that these were “administrative obstacles” that prevented women from accessing safe and legal abortions within the 12-week time limit.

Today, women need to defend themselves only from the personal judgement of doctors and other medical professionals.

And yet recently, I went to the gynaecologist for a check-up. As I left, the doctor gave me some unsolicited advice. “Јust a little reminder,” they said, “that it is time for you to have a second child.”

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