*This article is a part of a series exploring the abortion services in 4 districts of Karnataka.
COVID-19 pandemic has tectonically shifted many things in everyone’s lives. When the nationwide lockdown was all about highly restricted movement and access, only essentials being available, and night curfews; then the nationwide unlock stages were all about “are we there yet questions” on getting back the pre lockdown normal life.
When Hidden Pockets Collective started its tele-audits of service providers for abortion, we were in the cusp of the country moving from the lockdown to unlock. The month of June saw us glued to our phone, making calls after calls to every listed government-run Maternity Homes (MH), Referral Hospitals (RH), General Hospitals (GH) and Tertiary Hospitals (TH) in Bengaluru Urban district. This was just the start to an extensive project where we were to audit three more districts viz Mysore, Shimoga and Ballari in the state of Karnataka.
To know more about this SAAF (Safe Abortion Action Fund) project “Abortion is Care”, do read:
With unlock in full swing at various stages, we were very hopeful that Bengaluru Urban will soon be back on its buzzing feet. On that note, when we started making calls to the 30 plus listed abortion service providers that fall under the categories of MH, GH, RH, and TH, we were rushing against time to put together all the collected information for young women. Abortion is a time-sensitive matter and with lockdown cutting off SRHR access to numerous women, we were sure that we will be the SOS call for many women. But we were in for a rude shock from Bengaluru Urban!
Let’s not answer. Let them die or whatever?
Of the 30 plus listed service providers, many did not answer our calls! Mind you, these are listed landline numbers that the public is expected to use when they need information, clarification on healthcare services from the hospital. The inquiry desk of the hospitals is literally the ones who should be at the beck and call through this number. However, during the month of June, many of these hospitals chose to do a “Marie Antoniette” at the public by absolutely refusing to pick any calls. We were quick to dismiss these “refusals” by justifications such as probably busy hour, probably busy day, probably staff break hour. And day after day, hours after hours, we kept trying, again and again, to have someone from the helpdesk talk to us. Nothing worked! We just could not fathom how people in distress, say due to a miscarriage or labour pains can breakthrough this “refusal” to get help during the unlock, when the public had no clue how things are getting back to normal during the unlock. Forget about getting information on abortion, when in fact there is nobody to pick the call even to answer the most important question of that time: “I think I have Corona. What do I do? Where do I go?”
Yes, speak to us!
It was always a “hallelujah” moment when the calls were answered. When the audits for Bengaluru Urban were done, the total number of hospitals that answered our calls could be counted in fingers. However, it was not all rosy either when our calls were attended.
Volleyball the call:
One Referral Hospital had the staff unwilling to give us any answers to our inquiries on termination of pregnancy. Our call was volleyed from one staff to the other. They all came across as extremely uncomfortable to disclose any information on abortion over the call and kept dismissing us by stating that we need to come in person to the hospital, meet the doctor and get a check-up done. In spite of our repeated stand that we were currently not in a position to physically travel to the hospital due to the pandemic and that we just need some basic information regarding the cost such that we come prepared for the termination later when we make the trip to the hospital, the staff reiterated to their tone-deaf words “come to the hospital, get the OPD ticket, meet the doctor.”
A few hospital help desk staff were able to give us preliminary information. However, for details on gestation limits and type of abortion recommended, they were unable to help us as they openly admitted that they don’t know anything about such matters. They suggested we speak to the doctor and connected us to the department landline. Often the doctor on duty was unavailable to attend the call, as they were either in O.T or doing the ward rounds. There were also doctors who were unavailable as they were on leave or were away attending a district-level meeting with health department officials to manage the district’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Only Corona please:
A leading government hospital answered our calls with promptness and professionalism. We were almost on the brink of relief thinking that this hospital will finally be the go-to-place for safe and legal abortion for all, irrespective of the marital status. All hopes were dashed when they told us that the entire hospital has been converted into a COVID-19 hospital and they can take in only COVID-19 cases! Our question on where else can a patient go to get OBG consultation, now that hospital X is COVID-19 one, were met with apologies from their end: they did not know where the patients were to go!
Conditional abortion only:
Of the two hospitals that gave us a positive response for medical termination of pregnancy, one came across as too eager to get rid of us using scare tactics. The doctor of this hospital who spoke to us said that we need to get permission from the Medical Superintendent to get an abortion! She said this is needed because the abortion is for unmarried women.
The second hospital whose doctor was very understanding of the predicament of any women-married or otherwise- to get an abortion, did offer abortion services according to the provisions of the MTP Act, 1971. However, the doctor did put forward the suggestion that it is always best that there is a patient bystander who can help and support the patient during the abortion. She said that they have had cases in the past when the patient was abandoned by the bystander when any complication such as excessive bleeding occurred. Hence, she was of the opinion that a person who has the legal obligation to the patient be the patient bystander.
Pre pandemic and post pandemic:
Our field trips were severely curtailed by the pandemic. Had it not been for the pandemic, we would have been stalking the corridors of all these hospitals, talking to the patients and doctors there, trying to assess and evaluate on the ground, such that we have concrete data on safe spaces for women to seek a legal abortion. With the country gradually settling into the “new normal” of post lockdown months, we are looking forward to being on the ground.
Dr. Nishitha Aysha Ashraf is Programme Associate for SAAF Project at Hidden Pockets Collective. She completed her B.A. Journalism & Communication (2010) and Bachelor of Dental Surgery (2015) from Manipal, Karnataka. She has covered the Nipah outbreak in Kerala during her stint as Health Reporter with The News Minute (2018). The reportage furthered her interest to be a key player in public health/ community health. Her internship and work at SOCHARA – Society for Community Health Awareness, Research and Action (2019) was instrumental to learn more about the People’s Health Movement. She is keen on exploring the SRHR issues of Kerala, especially those amongst the Muslim and Christian communities.