In Bhutan, abortion health care is only allowed when the pregnant woman’s life is in danger, or the pregnancy was due to rape or incest. Previously women have crossed borders to seek an abortion, but it has not always been safe nor legal. The recent border lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic only unmasked the struggle that many Bhutanese women face in seeking abortion services. It is a woman’s right to choose what she wants to do with her body and it is no one’s right to tell her otherwise.
But when access to this essential health care is ignored during a major pandemic, it heavily reflects on how the state is upholding a woman’s right to choose.
Access to safe and legal abortion has always been about privilege. It is about who gets access to it and who doesn’t. We all know someone who has had an abortion. It could be anyone, your friends, neighbours, relatives, or the women in your family. But the question has always been whether it’s safe or not. People with financial means usually travel to Bangkok but those who are from disadvantaged backgrounds end up crossing the border from Phuentsholing (Bhutan) to Jaigaon (India) for abortion services. As such, many will end up getting abortions in back-alleys and buying abortion medication pills without proper instructions for intake.
According to study by Wangdi, 2016, there were significant cases of abortion from all causes reported to Phuentsholing general hospital for abortion associated care. It treated almost 10 percent of the total abortion in Bhutan, with an average of 9.75 cases per month. Contraceptives are not 100 percent effective, and the study also showed that the use of contraceptives among the study population was higher than the contraceptive rates of Bhutan.
There have been numerous reports in media about women seeking unsafe abortions in their neighbouring town, but there has been no action by policy makers. During the pandemic, the Thimphu Confessions Page on Facebook (which has over 60,000 followers) posted confessions from young women and girls who are in desperate need of abortion pills. I have personally received emails and messages on social media from women and girls who are seeking abortion pills. And it is disheartening that we are not able to do anything ever since the border lockdown.
Among those who reached out to me recently, the main reasons for seeking an abortion was that their families were “complete”, they were not ready to have children, and contraception had failed. Even Wangdi’s research reflects that the main reasons for women undergoing induced abortion were that their families were complete and are not ready to start a family.
In my previous attempts to reach our elected officials, I sent an email requesting them to loosen the current law on abortion during the pandemic and take this opportunity to set up a national database on abortion. This will allow the state to reflect on its current policy on a woman’s right to choose. Many of the elected officials in the documentary – called “Re-Thinking reproductive health of women in Bhutan” by Bhutan Media Foundation – openly expressed their concerns and will to work on abortion laws. But due to no current database, they are not able to implement any new changes.
Women and girls have the right to choose and don’t owe an explanation to anyone. People are going to seek abortions irrespective of the consequences, but as citizens, community members, elected officials, and advocates, we must make it safe and legal. It should never be a privilege that only certain groups of people have access to.
Abortion is essential health care. On this International Safe Abortion Day, she decides when to have children, when not to, and how many.
Friend of SheDecides and Women Deliver Young Leader Class of 2020