Aye Soe* didn’t know that the abortion would almost kill her.
She waited for the procedure in a dark, cavernous room located in the back of an unlicensed midwife’s house in Yhor That Gyi, a village not far from Yangon in Myanmar. It looked like an ordinary clinic—it was clean and stocked with medical supplies—but there were no doctors present. It was dark. Fear began to seep in.
The midwife came in and instructed Aye Soe to lie down on the bed, open her legs and breathe. It was time to begin. The midwife took two small, soft straws and inserted them inside of her. After a few moments, Aye Soe watched as blood came out through the straws. The midwife told her to keep the straws inside of her and that blood would continue to slowly leave her body. Recovery could be slow, the midwife said.
When she returned home after the procedure, Aye Soe began feeling intense stomach pain. She tried to wait it out, but it only worsened. She knew something was wrong.
When Aye Soe first discovered that she was pregnant, she worried about her future. At 22 years old, she knew she was neither financially nor emotionally prepared to raise a child. But she also knew that abortions were almost always strictly illegal in Myanmar, making safe procedures hard to find.
But there had to be a way, she thought.
They said I was too young to have a baby, and they wanted me to continue with my education. …I also didn’t want to get married at the time.
Aye Soe knew she would need support, so she reluctantly told her parents about her pregnancy. Despite being conservative Christians, they acknowledged that their daughter would not be able to raise a child. Instead of pushing her away, like she had heard so many other parents had done to their daughters, Aye Soe’s parents offered to help.
“They said I was too young to have a baby, and they wanted me to continue with my education,” she tells New Naratif. “I also didn’t want to get married at the time.”
With her parents’ blessing, Aye Soe’s sister reached out to friends until one of them recommended a woman who provides abortions with no questions asked.
Within days, she set up an appointment with the unlicensed midwife who would complete the procedure for 300,000 kyat (US$225). When the date was set, Aye Soe felt instantly relieved.
In the ensuing days, however, that relief morphed into fear, which then gave way to agony.
A week after the abortion, Aye Soe could no longer bear the pain in her abdomen, and she decided to go to the hospital. There, doctors told her that the unlicensed midwife had not been able to clean her body properly. They told her that it was likely that her uterus had not been scraped thoroughly, leaving behind excess blood and skin tissue. The doctors quickly removed what was left and sent her home with medication.
The hospital procedure cost 365,000 kyat (US$260)—more than the abortion itself.
Five years later, Aye Soe still lives with the experience.
“It’s always on my mind,” she says.
A Painful Pill
In Myanmar, having an abortion can be a life or death situation. According to the United Nations Population Fund, abortion complications are one of the leading causes of maternal deaths in the country.
The danger stems from the fact that abortions are illegal in Myanmar unless the person seeking one can prove their life is at risk. Strict laws criminalise those who perform abortions for other reasons, and violators can face up to seven years in prison.
Myanmar feminists say that unjust laws and decades of deeply rooted patriarchal culture make accessing safe options nearly impossible, and the laws often force people with unwanted pregnancies to turn to dangerous alternatives.
Aye Soe says that at the time she got her backroom abortion, she did not know it was possible to acquire abortion pills. Looking back, she says she would have chosen the pill, as it seems to be safer.
But doctors say that abortion pills are not necessarily safer when sourced illegally because complications can be life-threatening without access to safe, legal medical care.
Physically, there is so much pain. I had to think about where my focus needed to be. Do I prioritise my emotional well-being, or take care of my body?
Kamcha Heankhe, 29, is an Indian citizen who has lived in Myanmar for two years. For weeks after she became pregnant, she struggled to decide what to do. Like Aye Soe, she knew it was not the right time to have a child.
Kamcha’s partner managed to acquire abortion pills on the black market and told her that they were the only solution. But she was hesitant to take them. Contemplating her options, Kamcha sat with the decision for several days.
Then one evening, it became glaringly clear to Kamcha that she could not raise a child. Her partner simply wasn’t ready to start a family, and she feared the child would grow up in a forced relationship and a disturbed family. Her partner held on to the pills, anticipating that she would eventually decide to use them.
As Kamcha waited for the pills to take effect, she felt physically and emotionally exhausted. She was scared; she did not know exactly what she had taken, and she did not want to know because she felt like she was committing a crime.
“For a moment, I felt motherhood. I felt divine,” Kamcha says.
Then came the pain.
“In a few minutes, my whole body was shivering,” Kamcha says.
“Physically, there is so much pain. I had to think about where my focus needed to be. Do I prioritise my emotional well-being, or take care of my body? I was bleeding for almost a month after the abortion,” she tells New Naratif.
I’ve been through it, but I’ve also made my way out of it. It’s a part of me forever.
Knowing that the abortion she had just performed on herself was illegal, Kamcha felt she had nowhere to turn for medical treatment or information.
“It was a dark, numb few days,” she says.
Afterward, Kamcha went through a period she calls “brokenness” and sought therapy. After several sessions, she feels she came out on the other side stronger, knowing she made the right decision.
“I’ve been through it, but I’ve also made my way out of it. It’s a part of me forever, she says. “It’s personal and very deep for me.”
Myanmar’s criminalisation of abortion dates back to a colonial-era Penal Code, first enacted in 1861. Under Article 312 of that code, anyone who performs an abortion, including on oneself, for any reason other than to save the woman’s life, is subject to up to three years in prison, a fine, or both. For late-term abortions, the penalty rises to seven years.
In 2013, lawmakers drafted the Protection and Prevention of Violence Against Women (PoVAW) bill with the intent of bringing domestic laws in line with international obligations. If enacted, the law would legalise abortion in cases where the pregnancy would affect the woman’s psychological and physical health, or where the pregnancy resulted from rape. However, the abortion would require the approval of a Medical Examniation Board appointed by the Ministry of Health and Sports.
After years of delays, the PoVAW bill was placed on the Myanmar government’s legislative agenda in 2020, only to be derailed by the recent military coup. In any event, women’s rights advocates say the bill failed to meet international human rights standards and did not sufficiently protect women.
“A letter has to be written to this board, and their decision process can take a while,” says Nandar, a women’s rights activist and host of the G-Taw Zagar Wyne podcast.
“In the meantime, a woman is left at a greater risk of self-inducing the abortion. It is a situation of life and death as she awaits permission,” she says.
Nandar, who has become a leading voice for gender equality in Myanmar as a feminist activist, podcaster and storyteller, says the bill’s slight expansion of abortion rights would have fallen well short of what women need.
“Women should be able to make their own decisions, especially with rape cases, which are extremely psychologically distressing,” Nandar says.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, people with unwanted pregnancies could circumvent Myanmar’s anti-abortion laws by traveling to Bangkok or Singapore. Today, however, with borders closed throughout Asia, more women are forced to perform the procedure on themselves through risky, often unhygienic methods.
Fear of Judgment
The lack of access to safe abortions in Myanmar is a symptom of a larger lack of sexual and reproductive health education. Most Myanmar schools do not offer sex education as a separate subject, leaving many young people to grow up uninformed.
In 2020, senior Buddhist monks took to Facebook to denounce a government proposal to offer sex education in schools, and when a doctor derided them in response, he was charged with insulting the clergy and sentenced to 21 months in prison. Consequences like this make honest conversations about abortion and family planning deeply taboo.
“The fear of judgement and family honour being tarnished forces women to choose unsafe methods purely out of fear of judgement and long-term association that could lower their chances of getting married into a good family,” says Sneha Nair, communications officer at HowToUse, an online community that offers information and resources about medical abortions to women around the world.
Nair says many women who lack information go to extreme lengths to end their pregnancies. HowToUse has documented cases in Myanmar where women inserted bat hair vaginally, expecting it to induce an abortion. Other women insert sticks or other sharp objects. Both methods are incredibly dangerous and can easily lead to infections and life-threatening complications, she says.
“Banning abortions doesn’t stop them. It only makes it more dangerous,” added Nair.
I never rejected abortion, but I thought it was something no “proper” woman should ever think about.
Many young people in Myanmar have begun to recognise this danger and push for a cultural shift.
Yangon native Winnie Thaw, 25, recalls the first time she thought about what having an abortion meant.
“The country was really closed off. Our minds were closed off as well, especially with the lack of sex education and the stigma around any discussion on sex,” she says.
“I never rejected abortion, but I thought it was something no ‘proper’ woman should ever think about,” she adds.
She says she was raised to believe that women “should know better” and exercise self-control. Then, right before going to university in the United States, Winnie’s close friend became pregnant. Her friend made the decision to abort the baby. She recalls being disturbed by how harshly her friend was judged when the news spread in her community.
“It wasn’t fair,” she says. “There is the belief that if you give a woman the right to have an abortion, they’ll [have sex] all the time because there is a convenient solution for consequences. This perspective places the blame of any accidental pregnancy purely on the woman.”
“The right to abortion is a necessary healthcare option that just needs to be there,” Winnie adds.
Yangon resident Shinn Thu Naung, 19, also feels that abortion restrictions are hurting local communities. Raised in a deeply conservative Buddhist household, his mother, grandmother and two aunts taught him to reject the idea of abortion. However, when his neighbour was forced to undergo an illegal abortion from a midwife, and he heard about the unsafe conditions she had been subjected to, his religious views began to shift.
“She had a few kids but no husband, and didn’t tell anyone she was pregnant,” he recalls. “She ended up dying when the procedure did not go as planned. After the abortion was performed, the residue left inside her body killed her.”
Pushing the Boundaries
Abortions are taboo in Myanmar due to an inherent value placed on patriarchy, says Nandar, the feminist podcaster. This creates a system in which women do not have ownership of their own bodies.
But young people like her are beginning to resist that system.
“Ten years ago, university students were not interested in feminism or challenging patriarchy,” Nandar says. “As I educate young people, I am learning that so many of them want to contest these systems. This gives me hope.”
Safe access to abortions means not letting societal pressure influence a woman’s decision, nor having laws that hold women back, she says. “It is about having the freedom to make our own choices.”
Nandar says women’s rights activists are working to normalise conversations surrounding abortion to strip away taboos that have accompanied the topic for so long. The rapid rise in internet access in Myanmar (when the military does not block access) has allowed users to imagine and pursue gender equality in ways they could not before.
But for Aye Soe, the conversation around abortion still brings up difficult memories. She hopes other women in similar positions will one day have safer options.
“It was the most dangerous thing I’ve ever done. I hope no one else will have to be in the same situation I was in.”
Additional reporting by Linn Let Arkar
*Name has been changed to protect the person’s safety