So You’re Having An Abortion (in Halifax, Nova Scotia)

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pro choice

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.

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The Test:

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.

The Appointments:

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

The Procedure:

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.

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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.

11 thoughts on “So You’re Having An Abortion (in Halifax, Nova Scotia)

  1. M

    Thank you so much for this. I don’t know you personally but we have mutual friends, and I’m naturally a big Ask First video fan :) I had an abortion in Halifax just over a month ago, and it would have loved to have been able to read this first. It is still comforting for me to read now, after the procedure, as it is reassuring to know someone has experienced this process in a way somewhat similar to me. It is frustrating to know that even if we are confident about our decision and knowledgeable about sexual health resources and services, it is STILL a struggle to negotiate the process – that is not a good sign for our health system (on top of this being the only abortion clinic for NS & PEI). I had different/similar experiences (complication of an IUD, was forced to pay for the procedure because of NB medicare – the only province that won’t cover out-of-province abortions, stuck pregnant for what felt like FOREVER, kind nurse that made me feel safe – the first health professional I talked to who I knew for sure was pro-choice and supportive, felt like the whole world didn’t want me to have the procedure except for a few supportive close friends). Anyway, I just wanted to say thank you so much for sharing. This will be a wonderful resource for others.

  2. authorphotographertheatreperformer

    I think it’s a fair thing to post this owing to the lack of support and guilt out there. I hope those who need to, find support in your message. I can’t believe that shame still keeps this hidden. Women ought to support each other at this time, not hurl hated and disgust. -M

  3. a

    Thanks so much for writing this. This is such a relief to read that someone else felt trapped having to wait so long for an abortion. I got pregnant with an IUD and when I sought out medical help, I would have had to have waited until I was at 11 weeks for an abortion. I was only 5 weeks along when I found out. It was awful and I refused to wait that long. I ended up flying to Toronto with a free flight credit I miraculously had to get the abortion done there only a week later. Even now the thought of me having to wait so long if I stayed here makes me nauseous. I was just lucky in that situation to go out of province. And the fact that even though I had a high risk pregnancy with my IUD still in me was scary because that wasn’t enough to get immediate medical care.

  4. EK

    Thank you for this post! I had an abortion in Halifax in 2002 and my experience was very similar, including the wait time, sickness, and weird maze into the hospital unit. One part seems to have slightly improved since then…. During my ultrasound appointment the staff kept behaving as if I was not “TA” but a happy new mom-to-be, thrilled about being pregnant. During this appointment I saw the ultrasound images without warning or consent. Then a doctor come in later to excitedly tell me my due date, after I’d already clarified that I was terminating with the ultrasound technician. I was very young at the time, and felt like I was being shamed each time I had to remind them that I wasn’t actually there to have a baby. Like you, I was certain about my choice and without regret. I had mentally prepared myself for the medical procedure, but was not at all prepared to be blindsided by medical staff looking or acting HAPPY/CHEERY about PREGNANCY! then SAD/UNCOMFORTABLE about ABORTION. I needed neutrality, not judgement. Glad they’ve improved that part now.

    The right to choose should be fundamental, and we need to continue to fight for it. Thank you for sharing your personal story. I feel we need to collectively share our experiences in an effort to “normalize” the discussion so those who exercise their right don’t feel stigmatized or shamed. It makes me so anxious to see so many roll-back legislation proposals in the US, and I was also dismayed to find recently that women in PEI have no access to abortion in their province at all! Inexcusable. That’s where society should be shamed: when access to safe abortion is limited.

  5. Hey Everyone,

    Thank you for all the positive response to this blog post. It has felt really good to share it and to know that others have had similar experiences.
    One update:
    In the post I wrote that four hospitals provide abortions in Nova Scotia. This is not entirely true. While four hospitals in Nova Scotia technically can provide surgical abortions, the procedure almost exclusively happens in Halifax. At other hospitals they don’t always have the time or resources, and referring to Halifax is easier. Also, doctor’s have the right to conscientiously object to performing the procedure on moral grounds. But, if this happens, the doctor MUST refer you to someone else who will perform the procedure.
    All of this makes accessing abortion in Nova Scotia very difficult.

  6. M

    New Brunswick is also pretty awful. Technically, you can get a surgical abortion in hospital but finding an in-hospital provider is incredibly difficult (though definitely not impossible, I know someone who has and I believe there is a provider at the Moncton hospital) but getting the necessary (ridiculous) 2 doctor referral for that hospital abortion with medicare coverage is super challenging. NB medicare only funds abortions provided in NB hospitals – they don’t cover the cost at the Fredericton Morgentaler clinic (around $700) and they don’t cover the cost of abortions provided out of province (literally the ONLY province that refuses to do so). I couldn’t get to Fredericton and had to have my abortion in NS with my NB medicare at a super fun $1600+ expense. I was so desperate to get the abortion and was beyond grateful just to be able to put it on credit. But it was pretty fucked. So much for universal health care, Canada.
    -AskFirstVidfan

  7. Woah AskFirstVidfan (thanks!),
    That is terrible bullshit. Thank you for sharing.

    Quite a few people have emailed me with their experiences since this post went up.
    If anyone reading this is interested in contributing stories for a ‘zine about having an abortion in the Maritimes, please get in touch at kaleigh at venus envy dot ca. I want to start trying to put something like this together.

  8. KD

    Thanks for having the courage to post this! I have had a very similar experience a year and a half ago in Halifax with an unwanted pregnancy. Thankfully, I was well supported by my partner at that time, so I experienced loneliness but not to the extent that you did. I am still in awe about the nurses at the Sexual Health Centre, as well as the staff in the termination unit at the VG. As my partner was not allowed in to support me through the whole procedure, they were just amazing, strong, with big smiles. I don’t know what I would have done without them. I found the procedure to be the most painful thing that I have ever experienced, and I almost threw up at the end of it. But the nurse sat with me, held my hand and was very soothing, so my pain slowly subsided. I was also supported by my counsellor before and after the procedure, which helped me to feel ok about my decision. However, as one can see by your post, and by the reactions to it, what happened sticks with you one way or another… but that does not need to be a necessarily bad thing… Looking back, I learned a lot from this experience for me.
    On a more political level, I would like to add a few things: Having been pro-choice all my life, and being from a European country, I was amazed to see how difficult abortions are made around here… I was astonished to find out that the abortion pill is not licensed here (which would be so helpful around here, especially as Canada has so many rural areas which complicates access to hospitals). When I was in the unit in Halifax, there were women from PEI (where it is not possible to get an abortion), and from Cape Breton, who had to travel for hours to get home after the procedure… for me, the ten minutes to get home inside Halifax were already enough to sit in a car after this procedure. This pill would make life easier for a certain amount of women, and probably even be cheaper than those surgical procedures.
    I am also at odds with the waiting period until you are “allowed” to have the abortion… I knew very early that I was pregnant, but I needed to wait another three weeks to get over the threshold for the procedure… There might be women who need this time to be sure what they want to do, but once my decision was made (in week 5), I just wanted to be finished with it, instead of dragging this on (with all the pregnancy symptoms that I had to endure which made it very hard to focus on my work and social life). Pro life arguments always show how a fetus looks like at a certain time of the pregnancy, so would it not be more humane to not let it grow that much until you finally do the procedure?
    I found it also sad that the unit needs to be well hidden in the VG behind doors, locks… what does this say about our society? I was also wondering how the fantastic nurses working there speak about their work, how much public recognition they receive (and I think they deserve so much of it!).
    Again, thank you for speaking up! This will be a great resource, and I hope that it will be used also by doctors or the people at the Sexual Health Centre.

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