Abortion Tales: Severed and not severed
Image from our series on abortion - Courtesy: Rana Rafik

As told to Ghadeer Ahmed

A doctor with a scalpel, some anesthesia, a little bit of hygiene and a lot of consolation: That’s all I needed. There, in the maternity ward, in a private hospital in Kafr al-Sheikh, I closed my eyes to the sight. My son was wrapped in a transparent plastic bag. His heart was beating slower and slower, until it came to a complete stop. I stopped screaming. My mother stopped crying. And I drifted out of consciousness.

I saw blood and wished I were asleep. I wished I hadn’t been awake for that experience, and that I didn’t relive it dozens of times in my nightmares.

I felt my soul escape my body to watch me from above. I was knocking my head against the wall. My sister’s skin was under my nails mixed with her blood. I grabbed at her with a strength I didn’t know I had. She was crying, my mother screaming. My father was looking for the doctor who had already told us he wouldn’t help until he saw a head coming out of the womb.

“Haram [it’s wrong],” said said, very simply, judging me in my worst moment, as I both pitied and hated myself. From one in the afternoon until 11 at night, he left me to kill my son on my own.

Why had I ended up there? I did everything that needed to be done. I applied everything I read, every doctor’s instruction. I did all that could be done to protect my pregnancy. How did I end up thrown in the hospital undergoing an abortion without a doctor or a nurse? “This is my womb. I wanted this pregnancy. Why is this happening?” I thought.

In my half consciousness, I drifted back to a time five months ago when my husband and I had driven over a speed bump. As the car wobbled, I put my hand to my stomach for the first time and, stroking it, said, “Don’t worry. You’re fine.” When I realized what I was doing, I smiled. “I feel pregnant. I’ll do a pregnancy test tomorrow.”

The following afternoon I was light with joy when the test was positive. You could see the happiness in Ahmed’s eyes. I was pregnant despite having been using contraceptives for a while. It was a good surprise. I loved the baby as much as I loved Ahmed.

We spent weeks shopping at children’s clothing stores and going to follow up appointments at the gynecologist. I listened very carefully to the baby’s heartbeat during every visit. I found out he was a boy. I spent days reading and singing to him, feeling him.

One day, in the fifth month, I woke up and the space between my thighs was wet. I went straight to the doctor. He told me the amniotic fluid surrounding the fetus had been lost and there was no point going through with the pregnancy, as the fetus would die. He said he would wait for a specialist to confirm the diagnosis.

The two doctors were in agreement, saying that the fetus would die. They provided the reports that they told me would allow me to have an abortion in any hospital. I was allowed an abortion because I am a married woman and because the pregnancy was a risk to my health. They insisted, however, that neither would perform the abortion himself.

The doctors’ words are still in my ears. The first told me nicely that he doesn’t do abortions, and the second said that he wouldn’t do anything.

I wanted to keep the baby until the seventh month, until he was “viable,” so that he could be placed in an incubator, but I couldn’t. My health went from bad to worse, and I came down a fever. Everything pushed me toward an abortion. It was not a choice but a medical necessity.  

I traveled from Cairo to Kafr al-Sheikh, so I could be with my family.

I went to see a third doctor, but he was religious and said it was haram. His voice joined the first two: Even if I went through labor, I would still have a dead child. I surrendered.

He gave me a labor-inducing drug at 12:00 pm. He didn’t look at me. His hands knew their way, but they were rough. Fat fingers. And he was cold. When he was done, he said, “Go away now, and, when your contractions become regular, give me a call.” It was my first pregnancy and my first abortion. I didn’t understand. I didn’t know what he meant by regular contractions.

I went home and listened to all the things I didn’t want to hear on that day. “You will be compensated. You will be rewarded. God’s will is never bad,” my family said.

The doctor didn’t tell me that I would bleed – and I was bleeding. So, I headed back to the hospital, with no idea what would happen to me.

We called the doctor when we arrived, but he did not pick up. I hadn’t seen a doctor since I arrived back at the hospital. Waiting in a clinical room, the women in the family advised me to push the fetus out of my womb. I knew that pushing was a necessary last step, but would be done in the presence of a doctor. Was I giving birth in another era? This pain was too much. I pushed and pushed until I had no more energy, and I could no longer tell my breathing apart from my screaming.

Throughout, I felt my son resisting my body’s attempts to eject him. I was his home, but I was kicking him out. I was his safety, but I was expelling him. I felt him fight to stay alive, as I fought for him to die. I was fighting with all my strength, kicking against the wall. Why? Because I wanted the pain to end. “When will the pain end? When I die? But I am afraid of death,” I thought.

My pressure dropped. I was sweating, and I started to lose consciousness.

“Just open my stomach and get him out!” I screamed. I felt guiltiest at this point: He was still alive. His heart was still beating. My body wants to get rid of a living baby, a baby I claimed to love beyond belief, a baby whose ultrasound pictures I cherished, a baby whose every heartbeat was precious. Every two weeks, I’d gone to the doctor just because I wanted to see this baby. But in that moment, I would have done anything just to get rid of him. I just wanted it to be over.

My father was running back and forth between the hospital manager’s office and another doctor who refused to see me because doctors are not supposed to infringe on their colleagues’ cases. I added some humanity and a little professionalism to my wish list! How I needed the doctor to see me, to check my uterus, to reassure me. I had no idea what could happen.

After bleeding for more than seven hours, the baby was out. It was late, and there were no doctors around.

One last powerful push then it was all over. Even the pain went still. The baby was out. My body had ejected him. I didn’t see him. I just felt it. Horrible pain. Stillness. There was this painful moment as he came out of me. A moment before, I’d been waiting for that powerful push to put an end to this ordeal. But it didn’t really end. Part of him was still attached to me, and I was looking for someone to sever it, to tear him away from me.

My father ran again through the corridors looking for someone to cut the cord, yelling like a man who was about to lose two lives, one of whom was struggling for his last breath.

Finally, the hospital manager intervened and severed the umbilical cord himself. He refused to give us any documentation of his involvement, or of any other doctor’s in my case, perhaps fearing legal ramifications. Before we left, and based on his request, a friend of my father’s, a gynecologist, came and cleaned my uterus in an operating room.

I walked to the room with blood dripping down my legs. My son was dead, and I was in a room lacking the most basic hygiene. I felt I was a woman having an abortion in a shady backroom clinic in Cairo. To get on the bed, I stepped on a filthy plastic chair that reminded me of one my grandmother had in her bathroom years ago. I was freezing but no one bothered to cover me. They believed I would fall asleep right away. I wish I had. As my legs slightly parted on the bed, I felt my last ties to my baby dissolve, and I lost the remaining warmth in my body to the air-conditioned room. I continued to have chills as I held my child, who just hours later would be taken away to be cleaned and buried.

Then, we were both clean. We no longer had a need for one another. He was no longer covered in my fluids, as if he never had been. And I parted with my placenta and my faith. He departed to a new world, and I remained here for them to blame me for the loss. They forbade newlyweds from visiting me. “It’s a bad omen,” they said. I was faced with judgment from beginning to end. I was made to be guilty for a mistake I never made.

Perhaps I feel guilty for fearing for my life when we couldn’t find a doctor to sever the cord. I was really afraid for my life. Is this the reason I feel so guilty?

I was in a state of half-awareness, but still registering every detail. My breasts were ready to nurture an infant life given an early death. If asked how a doctor could have changed anything, I would say that he could have at least made me feel safe. I wouldn’t have panicked as we searched for someone to sever the umbilical cord. I would have been able to get to the operation room earlier. Fear and panic were my companions. I would have at least felt less guilty. The doctor’s words that what I had done was haram amplified my guilt. The medical reports I had been given were worth nothing.

I stayed with the remains of my fear and the silent pleadings and prayers. And then, a few months later I found out I was pregnant again and my first reaction was that I couldn’t deal with this.

I carried my pregnancy to term. I have a baby girl who is coping with a chronic disease for which there is no cure. I love her, and I accept her. My pregnancy and labor with her was very different. I continued to hear the same provocative consolations, however, things like, “You see, God rewarded you well.”

With her, considerable attention was paid to me during labor. Everyone was prepared. The doctor was there, and the nurses cooperative. And they congratulated me after the birth — yes, I had a baby. This womb is capable of reproduction. This woman reproduces. I am productive, according to their standards. But my standards for myself had always been different.

The memory of my baby continues to haunt me. We parted, but we reunite in nightmares.

I dream of women like me dangling from their feet tied in ropes. I knit, and I sever string. I realize that I am spinning them around me, disappearing within them in my pain, my depression, my thoughts of suicide. I sever the strings, and I tie them in impossible knots. I sever every scream I screamed that day, asking them to cut the cord and end my pain.

We are still tied together, even after he left my body and died. I knew then that it didn’t end. There is no end. This experience never ends.

I couldn’t find anyone to sever that cord between me and him.

Ghadeer Ahmed 

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