Abortion is a common experience—people of all ages, ethnicities, nationalities, and religions decide to end their pregnancies for various reasons. Yet in many places across the globe, people who have abortions face harmful stereotypes, blame, and social stigma.
Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) provides safe abortion care and also treats people for the consequences of unsafe abortion, a leading cause of maternal mortality. In 2020, MSF teams provided more than 30,000 safe abortions in our health care facilities around the world. When our teams talk to people who are deciding to have an abortion, we often hear their personal stories. To mark International Safe Abortion Day, September 28, we want to help break abortion stigma by sharing some first-person stories from women in the places where MSF works. We hear from women all over the world—from Colombia to Democratic Republic of Congo, Greece to India—including students, midwives, and people with and without children.
MSF is committed to using our voice to ensure that people everywhere have access to safe abortion care. Safe abortion care is essential health care.
[In Venezuela], if we had breakfast, we’d have nothing for lunch. If we had lunch, there would be no dinner. Sometimes we’d eat something at noon and leave a little for later.
We came [to Colombia] skinny.
I had to send [some of my children] back to Maracaibo [in Venezuela] with my mother, because they could not study here. I stayed here with my daughter, and we are struggling. There is no work here; I have nothing stable.
I didn't know that I was pregnant. I came to the MSF clinic because I had a toothache and a fever. When I saw that they were giving away contraceptives, I asked for some.
They said I had to have a pregnancy test first. It looked negative, but when I went around the corner, the other line appeared. I came back crying. They connected me with an MSF psychologist.
My doctor back in Venezuela had said it was dangerous for me to get pregnant again. I've already had four Caesarean sections. If I'd had to, I would have looked anywhere for something that could end the pregnancy. There are many options—there are plants, there are things you can drink. I can’t get pregnant again because I could die.
The next day, MSF sent me to the hospital to receive the pills for an abortion. My whole family supported me having the abortion. I already have children. I want to see them grow big.
Now, I’ve received an implant that will prevent me from getting pregnant for five years. Thank God, MSF gave me this implant [for free]—in Maracaibo, it would be expensive.
Mozambique: "The best thing is to decide for ourselves"
Seven years ago, when I was 36, I ended up getting pregnant even though I was on birth control—I was taking the pill. I spoke to my husband, and he told me that the baby had to be born.
I had to think about my physical health. I had small babies—twins who were one year old. I didn’t believe I had a strong enough body to sustain another pregnancy.
At the time, abortion was still illegal in Mozambique. [In 2014, Mozambique expanded its strict abortion laws to legalize abortion up to 12 weeks.] I ended up going to the health center, and a nurse performed the vacuum aspiration method of abortion. I thought everything was fine and went back home not knowing that nothing had come out.
A little while later, my body started to feel strange. I went to the hospital again. Another nurse in the maternity ward examined me and said I was 12 weeks pregnant. I told her: "I can't have this child. I'm not in a position to have this child.” She gave me one pill under my tongue and some pills to put in my bag and take at home, which I did.
I started to bleed—I lost a lot of blood. My husband wasn’t at home so I called him. He said: "This is your business. I take no responsibility because I already told you what I wanted.” I spent all night bleeding. The next morning I called my younger sister and asked her to come and stay with the kids.
I took a taxi to the hospital. I still had pregnancy tissue inside me so they did a vacuum aspiration and gave me IV fluids because I was weak. Thank God, I recovered, I didn't have any infection, and I’m still here.
We should be thankful in Mozambique that abortion is legal now—that we don't need to use unsafe methods that can harm us. I was one of those who used an unsafe method. I was lucky to have been treated.
We should only do safe abortions. It is easier and doesn't require many resources.
I put my marriage on the line because it was my health at stake . . . because I knew I was not prepared for another pregnancy. My partner wanted me to sacrifice myself.
Women who have abortions are not bad, not murderers—so many names we say. It is a need. We have to have autonomy in [making decisions about] our reproductive health. Because if we are not autonomous, sometimes we end up dying because we want to satisfy our partner's will, satisfy our mother's will, satisfy the will of an uncle, an aunt, a grandmother . . .
The best thing is to decide for ourselves what we want to do with our health, because that will also save our life.
I felt changes in my body and realized I was pregnant. Because of the circumstances and other problems in my life, I had to have an abortion.
It's difficult for me to provide for the children I already have—I make money by selling food and cigarettes on the street, and from time to time by cleaning people’s houses. And my partner was not able or willing to support this pregnancy.
I talked to some people I am close to who agreed to help me have an abortion. They showed me which herbs to use and I drank them.
At first, nothing happened. After a few days I started to have pain. I started to bleed and I felt very weak. I suffered a lot, so I went to a doctor. I had developed an infection. They removed what was left in my uterus and I felt better.
Here, in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, it is not easy to talk to people about something like this. I only told some people what happened—but I can’t tell anyone else, not even my mother. If I tell anyone, they'll think I'm a monster. In our culture, if you have an abortion people think you're a witch. So many women do it in secret and it can be dangerous, or even kill them. This is what almost happened to me.
I would like us to break the taboo on abortion and treat people who have abortions as normal people.
India: "I made the decision to not have a child for myself"
A week after finding out that I was pregnant, I bought some medicine. However, that didn't work, so I came to this clinic to get an abortion. The day after I saw the doctor, I had the abortion.
I didn't tell anyone in my family. Nobody was aware of my abortion [except my husband]. What's the point of telling anybody when all of them will advise against abortion? So I made the decision to not have a child for myself.
[After the abortion,] I felt really sad. It was like giving away a part of my body. However, I forgot about all the sadness and the hurt after looking at the struggles and the pain I have experienced in my life.
Having a baby is not just about giving birth, it’s about their upbringing, their education, and everything else. Raising a child is a long-term investment. I already have two children—a boy and a girl—and I am grateful to have them in my life. I decided not to bring a third child into this world because we have a lot of financial struggles. What's the point of raising a baby when we can't provide the child with proper nourishment?
Right now, my mother is funding my children's education, but she is very old. I can't remain dependent on my mother to help my kids. My husband was supposed to provide this support. That’s why I thought abortion was the best solution.
Democratic Republic of Congo: "Girls are losing their lives"
There were two young girls from the same family—both 15 years old and pregnant. They wanted to continue with their schooling. So, after getting advice from their friends, they secretly went into the bush looking for traditional herbs.
They prepared the herbs and drank them, thinking that this remedy would cause an abortion. The girls began to have abdominal complications. Their bellies became swollen. They were in pain. They were crying.
Their parents took them to the hospital. Both girls died within minutes of each other. They died as a result of poisoning from the traditional plants they used to induce abortion. This happens a lot here.
Typically, in our country, it's difficult to talk about problems such as unwanted pregnancy. It's complicated with our traditions and taboos.
Young girls are afraid that if their parents know they are pregnant, they'll be beaten or thrown out of the family. It's very painful. We should be able to say that: it's painful. Girls are losing their lives.
Middle East: "I thank MSF for making this easy on me"
This was my first pregnancy. In the beginning, everything felt normal. But when I reached the fifth month, there was very little movement from the baby. I went to a doctor who works in my village, and she did an ultrasound. It showed that the baby was deformed. I went back to the gynecologist, and she told me that nothing could be done.
I repeated the ultrasound in two other places. They told me things like, “If you have any luck, this child will not be born,” and, “Even if the child is born, it will not live long”.
I searched online to see if abortion is okay according to my religion, and I asked some trusted family members about it. All the answers said that it’s forbidden since the fetus had a heartbeat. But I couldn’t accept that at all.
I finally went to the MSF hospital. It took me one month to find a facility that would help me. I met a doctor there, and she took me inside. She gave me an envelope and instructed me to take the [abortion] pills every three hours when I got home.
In a few hours I started feeling pain. The MSF doctor supported me the whole time. I would call her, and she would answer [the phone], even in the middle of the night. From 4:00 a.m. to when the abortion was completed at 3:00 p.m., she was frequently checking up on me.
I felt very good when I was able to end the pregnancy safely. I thank God and I thank MSF for making this easy on me. The MSF doctor that gave me advice saved me from a lot of suffering. I was not even 20 years old, and I had to face this difficult situation. I’m a student and already have a lot of commitments, so I wouldn’t have been able to take care of a child with special needs.
My period didn’t come, so I went to a clinic in Athens. I had already made the decision that if I was pregnant, I would end the pregnancy. I have two children, I could not afford to have another one. They gave me one pill to take at the clinic and some more pills to take at home. I didn’t have any complications from the pills. I had some pain, but they gave me some pain killers and that helped. I made the decision by myself, I didn’t tell anyone. If a friend told me she wanted to have an abortion, I’m not going to stop her. I’m going to tell her the truth: There is nothing wrong with it.
Colombia: "I was getting my life back"
I was 19 when I thought that I was pregnant. I was confused. I couldn’t sleep. I could only think about the consequences.
When I saw that the pregnancy test was positive, I felt the world crumble around me. I was about to start university. My boyfriend at the time was very religious, which made things worse. I realized later that he was also abusive.
Fortunately, it was early enough for a medication abortion. However, the people who helped me didn’t seem to have medical knowledge. A pharmacy that sold the pills told me to insert two pills into my vagina. It caused a lot of pain, but no abortion.
Then I went to a clandestine clinic, and they told me to wait a few weeks so the fetus would be bigger and they would be able to take it out. That really scared me. I didn’t want to wait any longer—I was eight weeks pregnant.
I went back to the pharmacy to buy those pills again, and I did have an abortion this time. It felt like menstrual cramps. I was so relieved. It was as though I was getting my life back.
At the time, I only talked about the abortion with my boyfriend. The fact that he scorned me made me realize that the abortion was the best decision I could have made. When I broke up with him years later, he told my entire family that I’d had an abortion. I became severely depressed and cried all the time because of the things my sisters said to me. After 10 years, my family still judges me because of it.
When anti-abortion people talk about post-abortion depression, I really think the depression is due to what they make you feel. They blame you, they reject you, and they turn their backs on you.
When I was affected by the things they said, I talked about it with a friend. I knew she was a feminist. She always talked about women having choices.
Democratic Republic of Congo: "There is no need to be afraid"
We were coming back from the lake. Armed men had come, so the others fled. I had no strength to run, and they raped me.
When I came home, I was afraid to tell my husband. I missed my next period. He knew something was wrong, so I explained to him what had happened. That's when we came to the hospital. They gave me the abortion pills and I took them—they really helped me.
I told the nurse I was afraid to seek care. "We are here to help you,” the nurse said. “When you come to the hospital, it is confidential. No one else can listen to what we talk about with you. There is no need to be afraid. You did well to come—we will always help you.”
Mozambique: "Afterward, I felt free"
I’m 19 years old and live in Beira, Mozambique.
I felt I was pregnant and told my mother. We went to see [the father], but he denied it. He said, “No, that child is not mine.”
I decided [to have an abortion] because I wouldn't be able to raise the child alone.
We went to the clinic to have the abortion. I spoke with one of MSF’s counselors, and she gave me good advice. They gave me some pills and that was it. They treated me well. Afterward, I felt free.
When I found out I was pregnant, I felt really sad because I already have five children. I thought if I give birth to a sixth child, how will I take care of them? I have absolutely no support from my husband. How much can a woman do for her children all by herself?
I was married off at the age of 14. I did not like going to my husband's place because there would be bite marks all over my body [from her husband]. Even on my face, which is why I always had to keep my face covered. I spoke to a neighbor in my hometown about my situation. However, she told me there was no option but to go back to him. Time kept passing, but my circumstances did not change. I kept giving birth to children, one after the other.
When I came to know that I was pregnant with my sixth child, I cried a lot. I do not have the strength to give birth to more children.
It is very difficult for women to talk about abortions in our society. How long will women have to suffer because of this? It seems as if centuries have passed but nothing has changed. In 22 years of married life, I don't think I have seen anything change!
I shared my grief, my struggles, with a woman in my neighborhood—like I am sharing with you right now—and I broke down into tears.
She told me about this clinic [MSF’s Umeed Ki Kiran clinic] where I could get help. Initially, I felt very embarrassed to come to this clinic and have an abortion. But when I dropped the veil of embarrassment and sought help, I experienced a lot of relief and I was able to pull myself out of this difficult situation. I received the tablets to have an abortion here, and I have received every type of help I needed from this place. I’ve also gotten pills to take daily in order to avoid getting pregnant again.
Middle East: "My husband and I decided to end the pregnancy"
My husband and I were using contraception because we didn’t want to have children at that time. But after doing some tests, a gynecologist told me that I was four months pregnant.
I was previously advised by doctors that I should not get pregnant. I cannot deliver vaginally so I must deliver with a c-section—but, because of my health issues, I was told that I may die during the delivery.
Following the advice of the doctors—that this pregnancy could be a risk to my health—my husband and I decided to end the pregnancy. Where we live, it’s not acceptable that a woman makes this decision by herself. If the pregnancy occurs outside marriage, then a woman may have to make that decision alone to avoid the shame of becoming pregnant outside of marriage. But if a woman is married, then her husband must know that she is pregnant, and they must make the decision together—otherwise it’s forbidden.
I immediately went to the MSF clinic and asked for their help. The health care providers at the MSF clinic gave me the abortion pills to take at home. Then after some time, I felt the effects of abortion. I had pain and bleeding for about four days following the abortion. I went back to the MSF doctor, and she gave me some medication to help with that.
If it wasn’t for MSF I would have suffered because I cannot afford other options.
South Africa: "I couldn’t imagine bringing a child into the mix"
India: "I no longer feel ashamed"
I was married off at the age of 15 or 16. My husband is abusive. He doesn't practice safe sex. Instead, he tells me that men were born to marry women and have fun with them. He says, “I am a man and this is what I will do."
I made the decision not to have any more children when I had my third child six years ago. Since then, I've bought abortion pills at a pharmacy without any medical advice. I had an abortion with MSF's support this summer.
I used to cry when no one in my family would support me, but now I am self-sufficient emotionally. I no longer feel ashamed to talk about my abortions. I have developed good judgement since I got married. I can recognize who wants the best for me and who doesn't. Now I speak for myself.
Greece: "I made the best decision I could"
I wasn’t feeling well, I was very tired. I took a pregnancy test at home, and it was positive. I came to a clinic and they gave me the medication for the abortion. I didn’t have any complications. I felt fine.
I have been living in Greece as a refugee for two years. I am from Democratic Republic of Congo. I have one child, and it is difficult to support him. I am by myself. I made the best decision I could because I cannot raise a child well if I cannot find food for him—he would suffer in this world. I think abortion is a normal subject, it’s not something we should hide.
Story illustrations by Hustle & Funk