On October 5, 2011 I had an abortion in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
I had an abortion and it was a surreal, confusing, and alienating experience. The lack of information and resources was mind-boggling. The silence and sense of shame I felt was isolating.
You should know that when I had my abortion, I already had an exceptional amount of experience as a patient under my belt. As a person with a (dis)ability I had been navigating the medical system for 16 years at this point. I knew how to access the healthcare I needed – knew how to talk to doctors and how to assert myself. And when I had my abortion, I had been working as a sex educator for 3 years. I knew all about the resources available to me. And when I chose to have my abortion I made my decision without any uncertainty or regret. I was entirely confident in my decision. For an array of reasons (I am an urban-based, formally educated, middle class, white cis-woman) I am in a position of privilege. And still, with all of these tools on my side, I came through that experience feeling totally bewildered and unsupported. To this day it remains one of the hardest things I have ever done, not because I didn’t want to do it but because it felt like the rest of the world didn’t want me to do it. It was fucked up. It was a wake up call about how hugely important the pro-choice movement is, and how remarkably powerful the anti-choice movement remains.
The abortion debate has been raging forever. Today we’re seeing anti-choice ads all over the Halifax Metro Transit buses and bus shelters. (If you find them as hurtful as I do, you can donate money here to a pro-choice group soliciting funds to put up counter ads). I do not want to humour that debate here. The following essay WILL NOT question a person’s right to choose. If you have stumbled upon this post and you do not (and are unwilling to) believe in the right to choose, then stop reading now. But, if instead you are reading this because you are interested in sex and everything related to sex (pregnancy and abortions being two such things); if you are a feminist; if you have found yourself pregnant by mistake; if you have had or may in the future have an abortion; or any myriad of reasons that have made you an empathetic person, then please continue. The following aims to be a helpful guide to having an abortion in Halifax, Nova Scotia. I will tell you all about what to expect: the appointments, the procedure, the stuff you may hear and the things you may feel. Or at least my experience of it all.
When I went through my abortion a veritable coven of powerful women showed up on my doorstep. They had each had abortions of their own before me, and they gave me invaluable pieces of wisdom and advice. I would love to be able to pass some of those golden nuggets on. If you are seeking out an abortion and are feeling afraid & confused, then I hope this information can provide some reassurance and guidance. Trust me in this – you are not alone.
Acquiring the test and having the courage to even seek it out is one of the most difficult parts, or at least it was for me. It requires a certain level of acceptance. But once you got it, it is all yours and it can be almost relieving to feel so proactive. I got my pregnancy test at a Shoppers Drug Mart. It cost me $29.95. If this doesn’t fit in your budget, pregnancy tests are also available for free through the South House, here in Halifax. If you don’t happen to live in this city, check out sexual health centres and women’s advocacy groups in your area to see if they offer this service. Once you have it, you can take it home and pee on it. Peeing on the stick is fairly easy and the box provides helpful instructions. (Though to be honest, I did accidentally piss on my hand.) Wait two minutes and you will have an answer, YES or NO, in all caps. Typically, the kit comes with two testing sticks, so you can double check. The test does not give false positives. If you get a yes, it is a yes. However, it may provide a false negative, so keep that in mind.
Typically, there are two appointments that you have before you have your abortion. The first is for an abortion referral. The second is for a blood test and ultrasound.
The First Appointment
Once I knew for sure that I was pregnant, I immediately called the Halifax Sexual Health Centre (HSHC) for my referral. I called them rather than my family doc because I had been there before and I hoped they would be able to get me in to see a doctor faster. Plus, I liked the anonymity of the HSHC. I didn’t really want my family doctor to know. But you can also get a referral through your family doctor if that is what you prefer.
If you go with the HSHC, when you call to book an appointment, ask for a “T.A”, which stands for Therapeutic Abortion. The receptionist will ask when your last period was. As is explained on the HSHC website, if your period was less than 3 months ago you will be booked in for an appointment in probably about a weeks time. But, if your period is more than 3 months late the receptionist will most likely put you directly through to the nurse. In Nova Scotia abortions cannot be performed after 15 weeks and 5 days of pregnancy. So, if you are over 3 months late they will try and help you move through the process more quickly.
When you arrive for your appointment, you are first brought into a room with a nurse to talk about your decision. The nurse will ask you some questions about yourself, mostly things like: when was your last period, when did you take the test, and are you making this decision with or without a partner. It is mostly logistical questions. The nurse then explains your options (T.A, continuing the pregnancy, adoption). They will detail what exactly having an abortion involves, and give you some pamphlets with information about the procedure.
Next you are brought into a second room. This room is an examining room and you have to get up on a bed and take off your pants and underwear. A doctor comes in and examines you. In my experience, the doctor put her gloved fingers inside my vagina and told me I was about three weeks pregnant. I remember finding this really disconcerting. If she could put her fingers inside me and know that, would everyone be able to somehow tell? It made me feel weirdly visible.
After this, you are almost done your first appointment. You go to the receptionist and they book you in for your second appointment to get blood work and an ultrasound done. This happens at the hospital, not at the HSHC. At this time they also book you in for your abortion, which also happens at the hospital.
My experience at the Halifax Sexual Health Centre was a positive one. No one ever tried to convince me not to go through with my procedure, nor did I ever feel like judgement was being passed on me unfairly. I did have to argue against getting an IUD, something which was strongly encouraged by the nurse, but this was easy enough for me. I am adding this caveat not to imply that the HSHC is not always a positive space, but simply to point out the truth that this situation is rarely an easy one. No matter how helpful and fair the medical providers may be, you may have to rely on your own strength and will at times.
The Second Appointment
The second appointment for the blood work and ultrasound happens at the hospital. I had to wait about 2 weeks in between my first appointment and this second appointment.
The point of getting the blood work and ultra sound done is to tell exactly how far along you are, and to make sure there aren’t any complications (for instance, is the pregnancy in utero or ectopic). When you go to the hospital it will say on your chart that you are terminating the pregnancy. This ensures that no one congratulates you or tries to show you the ultrasound, if seeing it makes you uncomfortable.
In my experience these procedures were quick and painless. I brought two friends with me and they were able to stay with me almost the whole time, except when the ultrasound was being performed. For the ultrasound you are brought into a quiet, dark room. You lie one a table and a nurse rubs the ultrasound machine all over your belly. It is cool and wet and I found it kind of soothing. For this you need to pull your pants down a bit, but you don’t have to remove any clothing. When you get blood work done they just take blood out of your arm. You don’t have to lie down, or go in a separate room or anything at all. All you have to do is roll up your sleeve.
The Way Your Body May Feel :
In Nova Scotia there is legislation in place (which I still can’t understand) that states that a person must be at least 8 weeks pregnant before an abortion can be performed. This is to ensure that the abortion procedure “takes”, though I know that other provinces do not enforce this seemingly arbitrary waiting period. In my experience, this is the hardest part of getting an abortion. To be forced to be pregnant for two months felt like a total bullshit punishment from the state. I am sure that this waiting period is also a symptom of Nova Scotia only having four hospitals that will perform abortions. With few resources, many people end up waiting in line as I did. This lack of resources is also bullshit.
I was pregnant for nine weeks in total. Those nine weeks were one seriously intense roller coaster. It’s strange to write about them now because that whole experience all seems very far away and resolved. But at one point I felt totally shamed and out of control and alone. I remember wanting to Google the symptoms of being pregnant to see if everyone felt the way I was feeling, but I was too afraid. I tried to once but the congratulatory nature of all the pregnancy blogs made me sick to my stomach. In fact, everything made me sick to my stomach. Vomiting was something that my body loved doing when I was pregnant. Here is a quick list of some physical symptoms you may be experiencing if you are pregnant & waiting for an abortion:
- you may be sick to your stomach in the morning, or at other times of day
- you may feel more tired than usual and require more sleep
- you may find the smell of cigarettes and alcohol really repulsive, even if you are normally pretty into consuming these things. If you do consume them, you may find yourself feeling really nauseous
- you may find your sense of smell is heightened (for me this part was actually kind of cool)
- you may find you want to eat strange foods (I fell in love with mac n’ cheese)
- you may find your junk smells different/stronger
On the day of the procedure, you have to get up really early. You must be at the hospital at 6:30 in the morning (!). They don’t schedule you in a specific time for the procedure, you just show up and wait along with the other people having an abortion that day.
You are first brought into a waiting room where you can wait with your friends/partner/parent/whoever. It’s just a regular waiting room, like any other. You wait there for awhile, maybe 30 – 45 minutes, and then they take you to another waiting room. You must go to this second room alone. You are separated from your people and led through a maze of hallways to another section of the hospital. This is for the protection of those performing abortions. It may feel very scary, but don’t worry, you are just one step closer to it all being over. You wait in a second waiting room for awhile, and then a nurse calls your name. She brings you into a tiny room and asks you questions about how far along you are, if you have a support system, how you are feeling, etc. I remember I really liked this nurse and she made me feel safe. However, I was also really frustrated that I was going over all the same information I had already had to tell so many other people. I wish I knew what the value was of this mini pre-abortion interview, but I still feel confused about it. Anyway, when it’s over and you are done chatting, you return to the waiting room. There you may wait for one hour or a few, depending on how many people are in line before you. Eventually, your name will be called again. You are led into a room and given a dressing gown to change into. When you’re all changed and ready, the nurse will offer you Ativan, opiates, or both. These drugs are to help you stay calm and endure physical pain. I chose Ativan, which was an oral pill that made me really loopy for the whole day. Next, you are led into the room where the procedure takes place. You get up on the bed and put your legs in the stirrups. A nurse comes in and sits with you. This nurse will stay with you throughout the whole procedure. In my experience, the nurse let me hold her hand and squeeze it very, very hard at times. She was very kind. But before this, the doctor comes in and explains to you what is going to happen. They tell you that it won’t take long (between 5 and 10 minutes) and that it may hurt. They put a speculum inside your vagina and use a needle to inject your cervix with a local anaesthetic. Then they use a series of rods to gently dilate your cervix. Next, a hollow tube (about a millimetre wide) is inserted through your cervix and into your uterus. This tube is connected to a suction machine which will empty your uterus of its contents. Once this is inserted the doctor walks off behind you to operate the machine. You can’t really tell where they are going, or at least I couldn’t. (For me, I was very glad that the nurse stayed and sat with me so I did not feel so alone.) Then the doctor turns the machine on and there is a loud noise and it hurts. It may hurt a lot. It feels a little like menstrual cramps but more extreme. But it does not last too long.
Now, you have had the abortion. The nurse will put you in a wheelchair and lead you into a room to recover. She will give you a pad to put on because you will be bleeding a lot (I brought my own reusable cotton pad and you can too, if you like). You sit down in a big, comfy chair and they bring you snacks – cheese, crackers and cookies. They keep you in there for around 30 minutes to monitor your bleeding and make sure you are ok. Other people are in the room with you, also recovering from their abortion. When I was in that recovery room I cried A LOT. I cried because it was sad and hard and it hurt a lot. It also seemed like a safe place to cry. I am sure they see a lot of tears there. The nurse’s acknowledged and normalized my reaction, and responded by telling me I was brave and bringing me extra cookies. There are also counsellors on hand who you can immediately go and speak with if you need to. I chose not to do this. (I did however contact the HSHC a week later and ask to be referred to a counsellor to talk about my abortion. The person I saw was nice, and it was free, but I only saw them once. I think there is a maximum number of visits you are allowed before it stops being free). When enough time has passed the nurses say you are good to go, and you are reunited with your friends. (I can’t say what would happen if there was more bleeding than usual and the nurses deemed you were not “good to go”. I think this is pretty rare. I assume you would be admitted into the hospital and they would try and sort out whatever complication was occurring.) Depending on the drugs you took, you may feel very loopy and strange all day. You are told not to take a bath, so that bacteria does not get into your body. You are also told not to have sex for three weeks.
After your abortion, you will bleed for awhile. I bled for about seven days, just like I was having a period. So don’t be alarmed by the bleeding. If it feels excessive though, than you should probably make an appointment with your healthcare provider.
If it was not already obvious, I am not a doctor. I am a woman who had a surgical abortion in Halifax two years ago, and all of the above information is based on my own experience. Nothing I have said is a hard and fast rule nor a universal truth. Having an abortion is not often easy. Those of us who have done it may have each felt vastly different things about it and had vastly different experiences of having it. For example, in other provinces (such as British Columbia and Alberta) medical abortions are an option, which means you can take an oral pill to cause the abortion. Or some people may choose to have a herbal abortion, which is a whole other style of doing things. But while there is no one, single, universal abortion experience, I believe it can always be helpful to have an idea of what to expect.
These resources have more information about having abortions in different parts of Canada:
The Morgentaler Decision
Regina Women’s Health Centre
The Kensington Clinic, Alberta
If you have had an abortion and would like to share your story, check out this website.