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Stigma, shame and back street abortion pills

Sherlin Barends

Sherlin Barends

Published Jan 27, 2019


Cape Town - Sixteen. That’s how old I was the first time I bought a pregnancy test.

“It’s not for me, it’s for a life orientation project,” I nervously explained to the middle-aged woman on the other side of the counter.

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Her raised eyebrows and pursed lips were a clear indication she didn’t believe me. She was right not to. There was no assignment that required me, a Grade 10 pupil at the time, to purchase a home pregnancy test.

However, I wasn’t lying when I said that the test wasn’t for me. A classmate was anxiously waiting outside the pharmacy. “Please, I can’t go in there. One of the aunties who works there and my mom go to the same hairdresser. You know how they talk,” she pleaded.

So there I was, clad in my blue and white school uniform, standing in front of the pharmacy technician who knew I wasn’t being completely honest.

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Still, I couldn’t stop myself from telling her about the fictitious task that was due the following Friday.

She humoured me for about five minutes, and answered all sorts of pregnancy test related questions for my “project”: how do they work and how accurate are they? Which brand works best? She smiled warmly and handed me a brown paper bag, in it, the plastic stick that my teenage friend would later pee on. All the while her boyfriend was getting ready to play a soccer match against one of the opposing schools in the neighbourhood.

I resisted the urge to sprint out of the pharmacy, which was suddenly occupied by one or two vaguely familiar faces.

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“Did you see whose daughter bought a pregnancy test? How the mighty have fallen!” the pharmacy technician said, loud enough for me to hear her, as I left the shop.

This incident happened more than a decade ago. I’m reminded of this event each time I’m told of a pregnant teenager who was too afraid to collect some form of free birth control from the local clinic, because she may know the nurse or be judged for doing “grown-up” things.

This week a 38-year-old man was arrested for selling abortion pills at a fast-food outlet in the Cape Town CBD.

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Prescription drugs, including the abortion tablet Misopostrol, valued at R270 000 were found in his possession, said Western Cape police spokesperson FC van Wyk.

It’s a relief that this man has been caught, but the actual issue at hand is much bigger. Women don’t have ownership over their own bodies. Issues around birth control and abortions often turn into public discussions and not private, personal decisions.

The fight for women’s bodily and reproductive autonomy continues. We still have a long way to go.

Women, especially young, unmarried women, are often judged and shamed for the personal decisions they make.

We are judged when we use birth control.

We are judged when we don’t use birth control and fall pregnant at a young age.

We are judged when we opt to terminate a pregnancy.

We are judged when we decide to keep the baby, but are unable to care for the child’s needs.

Women can’t win.

We have a problem if women would rather buy abortion pills and on the street, than go to public institutions that offer them in a safe environment and free of charge.

If we don’t provide women with safe, affordable options, chancers will exploit this reality and sell “options” out of bags.

* Sherlin Barends is a radio presenter in Cape Town. 

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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