The uterus wars
INSIDE AN ABORTIONIST’S LAIR
600 abortions a day in Sri Lanka. Those are the chilling
statistics. But it is a hundred times more traumatic to sit in a seedy
abortion centre and watch while scores of women pass through those
doors, some nonchalant, others obviously devastated. These are the
places everyone knows the addresses to, but nobody talks about. Outside
the gates, young boys stand like hawkers, ready to peddle the
abortionist’s ‘wares’ to wary and uncertain couples who make their way
to the centre, but are too afraid to go in. It is unimaginable that
hundreds of women go through the ordeal each day, when even the fake
pregnancy and abortion seeking, proved quite overwhelming, as The Nation
learnt on a recent ‘undercover’ investigation….
Abortion: it may be spoken of in hushed tones, and
rarely the subject of national discourse. But the statistics (180,000
terminated pregnancies a year) are ample evidence that it should be. In
the raging pro- choice debate, Sri Lanka has taken an almost absurd
backseat, refusing to change archaic laws, despite the fact that our
more conservative neighbours and even staunchly Catholic nations around
the world, ha ve begun to review their laws on abortion. In India,
Pakistan and Bangladesh, abortion has been legal for decades, and
countries such a New Mexico and Portugal have recently relaxed their
formerly stringent laws on abortion. Conversely, Sri Lanka has begun to
clamp down on abortion centres, starting with what was perhaps the most
legal entity amongst them, the Marie Stopes clinics. The fact the
authorities and lawmakers appear to have missed, is that dogmatic
anti-abortion laws only ensure that women without access to proper
medical attention are forced into the hole- in- the wall clinics, or
quack practitioners, to terminate unwanted pregnancies at great danger
to their lives. Far from reducing the number of abortions taking place
in the country, such clampdowns only make the procedures more and more
unsafe for the thousands of women who seek terminations every day. Has
the time come for Sri Lanka to take a closer look at the abortion issue,
from a more modern perspective?
It was late on a Monday when my Rivira colleague, Rasika
Jayakoddy informed me that we would undertake this ‘tour’ of sorts, of
abortion centres around the city the next day. Neither of us being too
familiar with the usual ‘joints’, there was a lot of asking around – and
surprisingly, the same addresses and names of clinics kept popping up.
Obviously, everybody can rattle off some of the tried and tested spots
around Colombo city at a moment’s notice.
The second problem was to come up with a fake name – and a story. Not
feeling particularly creative at the time, I assumed the name ‘Sonali
Perera’ for the day, uttering a silent apology to all those ladies out
there whose identities I was usurping for my journalistic purposes. It
was also decided that I would be employed at a travel agency and my
boyfriend for the day, Rasika in this case, would be a university
student. Why couldn’t we get married and have the baby? Because Rasika
was still studying and our parents were not entirely happy with the
match. I also had to mentally prepare myself for a possible abdominal
scan and/or a urine test.
We practised our ‘story’ for a few minutes, before finally getting
around to leaving the office premises. I could feel my palms sweating
and something in my stomach, (and it was no foetus) was lurching. I kept
telling myself that both Sonali Perera and our ‘story’ were figments of
our imagination, but it didn’t quite help to settle the butterflies that
were taking up residence in my abdominal area.
Our first visit was to a fairly reputable medical clinic in the Borella
area. As we sat on the plastic orange chairs waiting for the OPD doctor
to call us in, we re-hashed the story a couple more times in hushed
tones. The nurses were beginning to give us odd looks. I wondered if
they knew why we were there.
We were finally ushered into the room of a young and friendly looking
doctor. He seemed to gauge our little situation quite accurately as soon
as he laid eyes on us. I wondered if my nervousness was beginning to
show. Rasika started the ball rolling:
“Doctor, we’re having a small problem,” he said.
“Life is full of problems. And no problem is insurmountable. We learn to
face them and move on. So go on, tell me what it is,” the doctor
The imaginary pregnant girl inside me felt herself warming to the man.
He was inviting our confidences in such a way that I wondered whether
our preconceptions of mercenary, heartless quacks were in fact, slightly
I had to speak then. I informed him of the appropriate symptoms I was
experiencing (having talked the matter over previously with a colleague
who recently had a child), and the doctor soon interrupted saying, “So
you think you might be pregnant?”
I said “Yes”, to which he replied, “And you are thinking of an
“Yes,” answered Rasika. “I am still studying and there are some
obstacles from our families, so we can’t marry.”
By this time, I was starting to feel distinctly uneasy. I didn’t have
very many more answers left, so I was hoping there would be no more
questions – unless I was asking them.
The young doctor however was comforting. “Sex is a wonderful thing,” he
said, “but there are simple ways to ensure that it doesn’t lead to
mistakes like this one.”
He continued to explain to us that while he did not perform the
procedure himself, he would refer us to a senior obstetrician, one who
was practicing at a leading government maternity hospital in the
vicinity. “Think of him as your father. You may have to cry a little bit
and tell him that this was a big problem for you. He will then set up a
proper time and place, and perform the procedure for you,” he advised.
I would have had no trouble faking the tears if it ever got to that
stage, I thought, as there were already real tears forming at the mere
thought of a scalpel scooping something out of me. Fortunately, it only
made the act seem that much more real.
Determined to use my watery eyes to my best advantage, I asked the
doctor timidly, “Is it a surgery that will be performed on me?”
Of course I already knew the answer. “No it’s just a simple procedure.
The doctor will insert an instrument and wash your womb out.”
I winced for real. He noticed and reached out to pat my arm. “I can see
you’re nervous. Please don’t be. It’s a simple thing, any doctor could
do it, even me. He will give you something to sedate you and you won’t
feel anything. They will let you lie down for about an hour and you can
go home soon afterwards. You will only feel mild discomfort,” he
According to our information, the clinic performed these abortion
procedures on the second floor of the building. But the wise doctor
refused to say whether I would be ‘treated’ at the premises or not,
telling me instead that the obstetrician would decide the appropriate
place. In any event, the specialist did see patients at this private
clinic. The OPD doctor also refused to name a price, claiming that since
he did not perform the procedures, he had no idea.
Having decided we had the necessary information, it was time to move.
“The first thing to do is to take a urine test. If it is positive, come
back tomorrow morning and I will refer you to the doctor. You can see
him then and there. If not, there’s nothing to worry about and I will
tell you both how to ensure such a thing doesn’t happen again,” the
doctor said, writing a prescription for a test to be performed on me and
giving it to the nurse with the relevant instructions.
“Even if you are pregnant, it is not the end of the world. The main
thing is to have no regrets. It is simply a bad time for you two. Have
it done, move on and be happy” – those were the doctor’s last words to
us as we left his office.
The nurse attempted to lead me to the lab for my ‘test’. Not one bit
enthused at the prospect of doing the test, Rasika and I told the nurse
we had a prior appointment, and that we would be back in an hour and got
out of there.
The first visit had been a surprisingly positive one. We thought to
ourselves that if all abortion clinics were like that one, then it is
almost as good as having legal centres in the city, with the appropriate
counselling and explanation for couples. In fact, if they were all like
this last one, then we didn’t really have a story. At least not the one
Having hidden the press board in our vehicle under a seat, we then made
our way to another infamous clinic in Rajagiriya. About this particular
spot, we had tonnes of information, including the names of the doctors
who performed abortions, the price and the hygiene conditions. It would
cost approximately Rs. 30,000 per abortion – a slightly expensive
option, but the upside was that the doctors were well known, especially
among the older generation. It was one of the places your mother would
probably take you, if she were to know you were pregnant and it was an
The clinic is situated at the end of a cul-de-sac along a main road.
There is only one, beaten down sign to point patients to the clinic. The
place looked deserted and when we walked in, an elderly gentleman was
chatting to another man and writing down an address for him. He
proceeded to give him directions to an address in Bambalapitiya. “That’s
the place we recommend,” he said.
Rasika and I were seated waiting for the man to finish. Looking around,
there was not much life in the place. It had some ancient curtains and a
few rooms that looked nothing like doctor’s offices. “Why are you here?
Is it something to do with a pregnancy?” asked the gentleman, turning to
us suddenly. We nodded. “Well we can’t help you here. We don’t do that
after the police started raiding. The doctors are too scared. They don’t
come here anymore. This clinic is now closed,” he said, adding, “If you
like, I can recommend a place. It’s where we send everyone who comes
He proceeded to write down the address for us – the same one he gave the
other guy we noticed. We took the piece of paper and left, realising
that the clinic had obviously existed all these years, for the sole
purpose of getting rid of unwanted pregnancies for a steep fee. The
place gave us the creeps.
We made our way to Bambalapitiya. Well hidden by tall trees and
buildings, the residence on a main road looked quite commonplace, and
ordinarily would not have warranted a second glance. And yet, since we
were looking closely, the signs were all there. Outside the gates of the
house there were several young men. They were huddled in corners
chatting with several couples. We realised later that they were the
peddlers, stationed outside to make sure people don’t lose their nerve.
They would cajole the couple, promising that it would not cost much and
that it was no big deal.
Inside, the operation was much bigger. A small boy of no more than 11
years, came up to us and asked us what we wanted. We had wandered into a
sitting room that led to an upstair section. When we told the boy that
we wanted to meet with the doctor, he made it obvious that we were in
the wrong place and pointed us into a small and dingy waiting room. All
the while, women – some of them accompanied by men, came downstairs and
outside of the sitting room we had wandered into.
The waiting room was pretty typical. It was dimly lit, bright orange
chairs again, but way more people. The ‘patients’ played a surreal game
of musical chairs, as they moved closer to the doctor’s room. With each
patient that went inside, the whole lot would have to stand up and move
one chair closer to the door. We were outside for more than 45 minutes.
In that time, at least 15 people had filled the chairs behind us. The
continuous stream of people seemed unending. I found it disconcerting
how you could observe the body language and facial expressions of the
couples who were in the waiting room and guess their stories. There were
the very much in love teenagers, the obvious married couples, they were
all there, each with a different reaction to their doubt and fear about
an unwanted pregnancy. I wondered what they guessed about me, since
neither Rasika nor I seemed in the least bit distraught, chatting and
even laughing occasionally. We were saving our ‘act’ for the doctor.
When Rasika and I walked in, it was a diametrically opposite bedside
manner that we were met with. This doctor was not so much into the small
talk. “When did you get your last period?” he barked, not even looking
up at us, at first. I mumbled a date praying that it was not so
arbitrary as to be ludicrous that I was even there. “I need to do a
scan. Pay 1250,” he said. A shocked Rasika handed over the money while I
fought against all my better instincts to run screaming out of the room.
The scanning room was adjacent to his office. I walked in with Rasika in
tow. This was a tad more than I had bargained for. A million issues had
entered my head: from the hygiene of the bed I was going to be lying
down on, to how I was going to let this very scary man lay his hands on
I lay down on the bed as quickly as I could. He wanted to scan my
stomach. When my trembling hands didn’t get the skirt I was wearing
lowered fast enough, he barked, “quickly, quickly, I have other
patients!” and pushed my skirt down. I was horrified. Naturally the scan
showed nothing, so he gave me a prescription for a tablet that he said
should work. “If not come back in two weeks for another scan,” he said,
and Rasika asked, “What happens if she’s pregnant?”
He replied that he would wash the womb. “Where would you do it,” Rasika
asked, since I was struck dumb following the scan. “Upstairs,” he
replied. I did the maths in my head and realised that all those women
descending the stairs earlier must have been people he had already
performed the abortions on. “How much,?”, asked Rasika, the all
important question. “Rs. 12,500” he replied. Since this doctor hardly
lent himself to conversation, we had to leave the questioning at that.
I breathed a sigh of relief as I walked back out of the dingy premises,
and into the fresh air. I was queasy and uncomfortable with the thought
that I had subjected myself to an ultrasound scan at his hands.
Obviously, we deduced, the scan is how he makes his money. Everyone who
enters his office gets scanned. His only patients are those who suspect
pregnancy and need his services to terminate it. To the doctor, it was a
business that much was certain. Wasting time on one patient meant he
could not see the maximum number he could otherwise see in a day. So the
women are shuffled in there like cattle and hustled out as soon as
possible. No counselling and small talk here. This was strictly
The bottom line though was that we had obviously visited the ‘cleaner’
‘safer’ places during our tour. An expert on the subject of reproductive
health told us later that even the most hole- in- the- wall clinics now
perform fairly safe procedures. It is mostly in rural areas of the
island, where access is limited, that the bicycle chain or metal wire
methods are resorted to.
‘Sonali Perera’ did not have a good day that Tuesday. I felt for her.
Lost in my ‘acting’ (which Rasika vouches was extremely realistic – no
doubt because the fear felt pretty darn real) I really felt her pain for
those few hours. She was a frightened, guilt-stricken and utterly
helpless young girl. Sonali Perera felt the baby inside of her and the
thought of having it removed moved her to tears. She imagined herself at
the hands of quack doctors in those dirty rooms and wished the decision
was not quite so hard.
All in all, I was glad to become Dharisha Bastians again that evening.
I’ve held on to the prescriptions and the appointment chits. It’ll serve
as an eternal reminder of the countless, nameless women who make one of
the most difficult decisions of their lives, deep inside dungeon-like
abortion clinics all over the country.
reporting by Rasika Jayakody – email@example.com)
Clampdown in Sri Lanka
recent raid and shut down of a well known international reproductive
health clinic functioning in several parts of the island, has caused an
uproar since the same entity was invited to commence operations in Sri
Lanka under the J.R. Jayewardene regime.
move has raised many eyebrows, since it came in the wake of a meeting
between a prominent global pro-life organisation and First Lady,
Shiranthi Rajapaksa. The meeting was publicised in a Catholic periodical
published in Sri Lanka, and explained how the clinic in question was,
killing Sri Lankan babies.
Ironically, the raided clinic was one of the few centres in the country
that provided emergency menstrual regulation (EMR) with proper
counselling and certified medical professionals performing the
“It is ironic that Sri Lanka is so behind the times on this issue,” said
an expert in the area of reproductive health, speaking to The Nation on
grounds of anonymity. “Despite the fact that Sri Lanka is a country
whose Catholic population amounts to a mere 7% overall, the influence
they wield is stunning. Even 100 percent Catholic nations like Portugal
and New Mexico have re-thought these anti-abortion laws and have
recently amended them. And yet, we are moving backwards,” he explained.
According to the statistics, countries in which abortion has been
legalised have shown a remarkable reduction in terminations of
pregnancy, since the legal abortion is supplemented with greater access
to education about birth control and in some cases, even the provision
of contraception free of charge to prevent unwanted pregnancies, the
It is ironic that every part of a woman’s body is her own, except for
her uterus, he added, saying that religious and state laws world over
controlled that part of the woman’s anatomy.
In Sri Lanka two thirds of women seeking abortions are married, putting
paid to the theory of law makers in the country who claim that
legalising abortion would lead to a more promiscuous society.
“Of course nobody is proposing that abortion be used as a method of
birth control. Sadly, despite the perception that abortion is sought by
those living ‘loose’ lives and those who engage in casual sex, the truth
of the matter is that very often, the victims are the innocent,” the
He told stories of how there were instances that the raided centre had
to deal discreetly with cases of Catholic and Buddhist nuns who had
gotten pregnant. “These are not promiscuous people. These are those
people who in a moment of weakness make a mistake that could ruin them.
Should they be left helpless?” he asks.
From the frying pan into the fire – Sociologist
By Rasika Jayakody
Stringent anti-abortion laws place women who are already in a
precarious position into a much worse one, says Professor S.T. Hettige
of the Sociology Department, University of Colombo. “While the laws
exist to prevent abortion, lawmakers have failed to observe the myriad
reasons why abortions are sought in the first place,” he told The
According to Prof. Hettige, there are many ways to prevent so many
abortions taking place in the island, beginning with sex education and
awareness about birth control methods.
He says that while a total ban on abortions or completely legalizing the
procedure cannot be condoned, at the very least, existing laws need to
be relaxed to allow rape or incest victims to seek an abortion if they
so wish. “Current abortion laws only allow for termination of the
pregnancy if there is a threat to the mother’s life,” he explained.