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Pummeling, poisonous plants, and pain: an all too typical Burmese abortion

“It was so painful, I bled so much. I was so scared I thought I would die.” 

Myat Noe* (name has been changed) was 28 years old and married with three children when she became pregnant with a fourth. She was working as a migrant worker in Thailand, picking flowers on a plantation for less than $120 a month. She and her husband were already struggling to put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads. It was not possible for them to afford another child and feed the other three. 

Myat Noe was on birth control that had been distributed to their village by NGO health workers. She was not able to attend the meeting that taught villagers how to use it properly, because she could not afford to miss work. She took them improperly and fell pregnant. Many community members have never seen these forms of contraception. Almost everybody in the Burmese reproductive health community has heard stories about or has seen couples do things like put condoms on sticks or corn cobs thinking that they would ward off pregnancy because that is how the healthcare workers had demonstrated how to put a condcom on. Sometimes village stores have accidentally sold birth control pills by the day (if you have intercourse on Tuesday, you take the Tuesday pill, if you don’t do it again until Sunday, you just buy and take the Sunday pill), or just have no idea how to use them properly. Myat Noe was lucky enough to have the tools, but she did not know how to use them. 

Abortion in Myanmar is illegal, and in neighboring in Thailand, it is only allowed in cases of rape (after a police investigation), to save a woman's life, if her physical or mental health is in danger, or if the mother is under 15 years old. However, laws mean nothing when there is desperation and somebody looking to profit from that desperation. 

Myat Noe had gone to a team of 2 midwives in a nearby village. They proudly displayed their training certificates from various organizations along with pictures of General Aung San and Buddha on the walls of their tiny bamboo hut. They had been trained by NGO health teams to deliver babies, but not to abort them. That skill was taught to them by their grandmothers, and they had a considerable amount of practice. 

“What we do is safe,” they assured me as well as Myat Noe. She claimed that they just give their patients a drink made of things “that you find in the market” to flush out the baby, and then do a massage to bring the baby out. She even grabbed a friend to demonstrate the massage, which looked like a marginally annoying tummy rub.  She explained that they do not do anything after 3 months of pregnancy, but there are a lot of bad midwives. What these “bad women” do is use a pointy stick to stab the fetus to kill it and let it come out. Sometimes some of the baby stays in and causes infection, sometimes they perforate the woman’s uterus and she bleeds out and dies. “But I do not do something I would not do to my own daughter. My daughter got pregnant when she was 13. I gave her the drink and the massage – no more baby. I felt it was safe for her.”

Myat Noe had felt safe going there. They gave her the drink. Then they started the massage. This massage was not an annoying tummy rub. It was pummeling that is powerful enough to break the neck of a fetus, to sheer off a placenta and in some cases can cause a woman’s uterus to rupture. Myat Noe almost passed out from the pain. The midwives put “medicine” up into her uterus to “help”.

The next day Myat Noe started to bleed profusely and felt extremely sick. For several days, the bleeding and the feeling that her insides were being burned out didn’t get better. She was scared that she would die. A few days later, she went to the toilet and found some sticks that had come out of her. That was the last straw. She went to a local clinic, lied and told them that she had fallen and hurt herself and paid the equivalent of her monthly salary to have them fix her up. 

Two months later she still had pains.

She was later able to identify the sticks (aka medicine) that came out of her as a local plant used to “poison” out fetuses. She said the she felt lucky because one girl in her village had tried to use it on herself once and ended up “burning herself out” and was in the hospital for over a month. Sometimes these sticks can also poke holes in a woman’s uterus and cause the woman to die. So in some ways, despite the pain, Myat Noe could be considered lucky. 

 – Allyse Pulliam

Photos: Allyse Pulliam

Photos: Allyse Pulliam

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The next day Myat Noe started to bleed profusely and felt extremely sick. For several days, the bleeding and the feeling that her insides were being burned out didn’t get better. She was scared that she would die.