I Know What’s Best for You: Stories on Reproductive Freedom, edited by Shelly Oria, is a multigenre anthology with a focus on the crisis of reproductive rights in the United States. The book’s international supplement features sixteen additional works of fiction, nonfiction, and art by contributors from around the globe. Preorder the book, and receive the supplement, I Know What’s Best for You All Over the World, free as an ebook.
A Small, Embarrassing Triumph
by Karolina Ramqvist
My boyfriend had called her a murderer, and that was how I knew Sadie Parchment was the one to ask. I’m making her name up now, even though more than twenty years have passed and even though back then, everyone already knew she’d done it. She was slandered all over the small south Jamaican village we lived in, and in the ones nearby. He said she was a fucking murderer, and that was the reason no one was talking to her.
For a second, the gulf between us seemed wider than before. I was a young feminist from a small place far up north where the level of equality between the sexes was ranked as the highest in the world. But in that moment I wasn’t going to reconsider our relationship; I wanted it to be as indisputable as the porch we sat on. I knew Sadie worked at the restaurant across the street—it was more of a red dirt road really, but we always called it “the street”—and I felt like running over there straight away, but had to let some time pass, so that my boyfriend wouldn’t suspect anything.
A few hours later, as I walked up to Sadie in the kitchen, I felt giggly and enamored. It was the strangest thing. I knew some women claimed to be able to feel a pregnancy begin, but I had never expected to be one of them. Then again, I didn’t feel it the way they said it felt: it wasn’t like something tiny took hold inside of me; it was like a soft flame that lit up in my belly, from one moment to another—a slight drunkenness, and a feeling of being in love that seemed to swathe all discomforts. I was twenty-two and had come to Jamaica to write, and to try to become a writer. I was reading Jamaican and Afro-Caribbean writers and theorists and had just started my first novel, More Fire, and thinking back now, I realize that the title was referring not only to the little fires I could sense everywhere in this country, but also to that burning sensation inside of me. I had a smile on my face and sealed my lips to make it stop. I couldn’t explain this wonderful sensation to Sadie—I could not have explained it to anyone at the time, but I didn’t want my joyfulness to make her think I was inconsiderate, although compared to her, I probably was. I had no moral concerns and no hesitations and I figured that would be way too Swedish for her. I don’t know whether my giddiness really was a cultural, political thing or just the result of my avoiding the slightest agony, having been taught to not feel bothered.
—Are you okay? she asked, her face shiny and wet from the fire on the stove and the heat in the air, and I whispered back to her, even though no one else was there. I didn’t know that abortions, even if not legal, were somewhat socially accepted among many Jamaican women. They just kept it secret, kept it from their men, their congregations, and the authorities.
—I’ll take you, she said, holding a frying pan with a big fish in it. If anyone asks, just tell them you have a stomach ache.
Early the next morning we sat down in a waiting room full of people, underneath a poster I would never forget: PLEASE TALK TO YOUR SON ABOUT RAPE. The fire was still in me, a blaze licking my insides, but there was also a kind of curiosity, a feeling of expectation and tension. What if he refused to do it?
I must, of course, give him a made-up name too: Dr. Wish. He seemed to know what I was after by taking one look at Sadie. Or perhaps the way she looked at him made clear why she had brought this white woman—or girl, rather—to see him. His office was small, its tawdry walls painted white. He locked the door and then explained the procedure in a low voice. He had me undress and lie down on his examination table, where he inserted the tablet in one quick, harsh move. It hurt, and still I felt strangely enthusiastic. I had read and written a lot about illegal abortions throughout Swedish history (before 1974 and the legislation that today grants all women who set foot in Sweden free abortion until the eighteenth week). And there I was now, getting an illegal abortion myself. Having Dr. Wish’s vaginal suppository dissolve the budding life inside me made me part of a living female reality that I wanted to know, just as I wanted to know other realities that I, as a writer, had tried to imagine.
As I sat up and put my underpants back on, I asked him if it was Misoprostol, and when he nodded yes, I felt almost excited, a small, embarrassing triumph, not unlike what I had felt after exposing a “pregnancy hotline” as pro-life a few years prior. In Sweden you had to look closely underneath the surface if you wanted to expose the hostility toward women that you knew was there even after decades of political reforms. My article made the news; an organization trying to convince young women to keep their unwanted pregnancies was something that could not pass unnoticed. Outright attempts to control women’s lives and bodies did exist in Sweden, like everywhere else, but they were regarded as sensational and offensive.
I had just published an article on Misoprostol, an ulcer medication that could be used for medical abortions, which, of course, came in handy in countries where they were illegal. I wondered whether the drug had been developed with this potential in mind. Its dual function was almost too good to be true, since abortions were the kind of thing women all over the world needed, but in some cases could be granted only if they didn’t speak of it.
And that was what Dr. Wish told me as well.
—You can never tell anyone about this, he said.
But now, I’m telling you.
He handed me a prescription for gastroesophageal reflux and told me to show it to the nurse outside. She was a good nurse; he didn’t want to lose her. Abortions could be legally performed only in order to preserve physical or mental health, and pregnant women and physicians alike risked up to a lifetime in prison. Dr. Wish could be prosecuted and lose his license; regardless of what I thought of women’s rights and their ownership of their own bodies, which were so ingrained where I came from, I felt guilty for putting him at risk. I did not enjoy being the white girl who’d walked into his clinic and asked him to break the law in order to save me from my own banal recklessness, the privileged irresponsibility that I had acquired in a foreign country.
I did not feel comfortable acting as if the laws of this nation that I wanted to belong to did not apply to me. And I knew that like many others banning abortion, Jamaican society was very religious. My boyfriend’s family were Rastafari, Sadie was a faithful Seventh-day Adventist, and if Sweden was the least bit known here, it was for having designated an official religion (Lutheranism) as late as 2000, when you could read about the split between the Swedish church and state in Jamaican newspapers. But the law from 1864 that prohibited abortion in Jamaica was based on the 1861 English Act. So was it really a law of that nation, the island that I loved? Or could it be understood as something that had been left there by the colonizers along with everything else of theirs? The porridge and Cornish pastry, the fatherless family structure, the pigmentocracy, violence, and murder.
In Sweden, the general opinion on free abortion has remained the same, even after the right-wing nationalist party established itself in parliament. In Jamaica, the government is debating permitting abortion in cases of incest and rape, and Jamaican women have started to anonymously disclose their abortions online.
I had told Sadie that she could leave and go back to the village, so as not to be late for work, but she waited for me. Before we unlocked the door and left, Dr. Wish told me to get painkillers and extra-large menstrual pads and to go home and wait for the bleeding to start, to put towels on the bed and say that I had my period if anyone asked.
My boyfriend was there when I came home, and I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect from him, but he did not call me a murderer. He just lay down beside me and held me while the pain moved through me, changed my sheets and towels and washed the blood off my legs. At dawn, I got up to go to the bathroom, feeling the fire go out. And I did not know how to phrase it back then, but I knew that I was changed. Just as giving birth would change me years later, this did too. It didn’t feel like something losing hold within me, it felt as if I took hold of the world.
Karolina Ramqvist is a writer and novelist living in Stockholm. This spring, her book The Bear Woman, about a writer obsessed with a sixteenth-century survival story, will be published by Coach House Books and Manilla Press. Her English debut was The White City (Grove Atlantic). Find her on Instagram @karolinaramqvist and on her website: karolinaramqvist.com
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