The Medical (Un)profession : Caveat Empty

This is a guest post by CAVEAT EMPTY

As a twenty something year old it was not the first time I had gone to see a gynaecologist, and been asked what was now the question of the hour.

“Are you married?”

This question had bothered me even during the visits to the gynaecologists (and other doctors), which were prior to my abortion, and where I had not been horror-struck. This question was the doctor’s way of determining if I was sexually active. Apart from the warped moral high horse it was riding, it was completely unprofessional, and maybe even dangerous. There was the risk that someone may not make the connection that these doctors were making between marriage and being sexually active. I myself had only made the connection belatedly, and only after having responded to it instantly. And, even when I did understand the question I did not exactly want to scream “Hey you judgemental pig, I am having pre-marital sex!”

This loaded question turned even uglier when I went for a pregnancy test, and subsequently an abortion. It clearly was no more “a polite way” of asking me if I was sexually active. Evidently, mentioning the dirty three lettered “S” word was unthinkable, even if it was at the risk of doing your job incorrectly, but questioning people’s personal sexual choices was acceptable.

My marital status undoubtedly had no medical relevance, and certainly was not out of concern. The only thing that followed the question was a dirty look, perhaps one of the dirtiest looks I have ever received.

The Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act is supposed to ensure anonymity to any woman who has an abortion. However, this anonymity, even if we assume exists in reality, does not go a long way when those on whom you are relying to take care of your health, and conduct medical procedures which are uncomfortable enough to begin with, are the first to judge you. Not to mention this entire process of judging began much before one even got pregnant, or was even sexually active!

My experience was not the worst. I had heard horror stories, (and even imagined scenarios) where women were sent back to reconsider their decisions, were given long lectures on their “immorality”, or in even worse cases the moral police involved the family. I, fortunately, did not have to experience any of that. There were even some people who bordered on polite, and helpful. But, all of them, every single one expressed in some way that the abortion was a result of some horrible mistake I committed.

As a sexually active woman one is always aware of the consequences however scary they may be. While most of us think, and hope it will never be us, pregnancy is that scary something which has crossed all our minds. But, the medical “professionals” could not fathom that I was an adult woman, sexually active, aware of the consequences, and ready to face them, no matter how difficult they may be. The stares, and unsolicited advice, always followed. The nicest doctor I had during my abortion with great concern told me “No guy is worth it!”. In spite of the general attitude all around which surrounds sex, given her profession, her assumption that I could not have possibly engaged in sexual activity because I wanted to, was alarming for me. How is it that the woman who decided if I could have an abortion could normalize women engaging in sexual activity against their will? The same medical professionals who are active participants in determining rape evidence! But, that is a whole different set of problems.

This one factor of my marital status, and everything around it, made me realize that even as an upper-class, urban, feminist woman with the agency to take decisions and see them through, the toughest part of my abortion was having to walk around in stealth mode. The one thing that was constantly driving my decisions was keeping all of this a secret. Whether it meant finding a hospital away from home, or dealing with the physical, and emotional pain without batting an eyelid, my priority was always to make sure no one found out.

So when it came to facing the doctors and hospital staff, their judgment reiterated my fears of what I had in store if those in my life found out. While I was ashamed to think it, but their sympathy for me being a “poor” girl was better than their rude behaviour since I was almost always on the verge of tears, and was going through perhaps one of the toughest things in my life so far.

I could think I was a feminist, and preach it all I wanted, and claim not to care of what others thought, but when I was in a bad place and vulnerable it mattered how the people responsible for my health, and the ones who would educate me about the options I had in the medical procedures I had to undergo, stared at me a few seconds longer than they should have.

It took me eight months after the abortion, over ten doctor visits, and the constant nagging feeling that I had to stand-up for myself every time I returned from these visits before I could find the courage to finally answer this question, howsoever meekly, and ask one of these people in return “How is it medically relevant?”.

For me it meant even longer stares, and even more disgusted expressions, which, of course, these “professionals” made no attempts to conceal.

But I hope, perhaps in vain, that the next time a young woman who is not married goes to have an abortion, she will be spared the agony of answering this question. Even if merely one less time.

15 thoughts on “The Medical (Un)profession : Caveat Empty”

  1. Thank you for this. I remember going to a physician, a woman, for a routine health check-up before leaving for the US for further studies, and she ticked “sexually inactive” on my health forms just because she, being a family friend, knew I was unmarried. I seethed with anger internally but couldn’t say anything because of her relationship with my family, and I wondered if she even considered for a second the seriousness of ticking that option without asking me on health forms that would go to my university. I am studying in the US and have a boyfriend and am sexually active, and have the most wonderful gynecologist, and I wish I could go to a gynecologist in India with the same feeling of easiness and comfort with which I go to her.


  2. Whether or not a woman is sexually active does have implications for her health, and in a society where pre-marital sex is still not well regarded, it is valid to assume that only married women are sexually active.


  3. When I had my abortion the marriage question was not thrown at me because it was crystal clear to the medical professionals that it was an unwanted premarital pregnancy and I was already getting those stares. And I was prepared to face those. But at every stage I was asked the ‘father’s name’. Apparently that was protocol. I don’t understand what kind of protocol requires a person not present or not involved in any decision making to be named. And also I could very well give a false name. But my name had to be mentioned on paper as one Mrs. Something to one Mr. Something. I made it clear that concerned person was not my husband, and neither is his consent required by law, yet a male name needs to be on paper. In my case, the man concerned took responsibility and supported me, but for those who carry on through this alone, it is a harrowing experience. And again why refer to a less than 5 weeks old gestation sac as a ‘baby’ or the ‘first child’! Isn’t that medically wrong and irresponsible? My first child would be the one I willingly bring. I have been traumatised by the guilt for months. My boyfriend took pains to explain to me that it isn’t even a foetus yet and there is no shame in making the right choice.


  4. To my knowledge abortion is not legal in India except in cases it is a hazard for the mother’s or the child’s health and the term used is MTP (Medical Termination of Pregnancy). The Gynecologist has to record the reason/s for carrying out the procedure though they help clients get rid of unwanted pregnancies.

    Some unscrupulous Gynecologists charge exorbitant fees when unmarried girls or their parents approach them for an abortion. Five Star Hospitals even torture terminally ill patients in the name of “Tests”. The less we talk about their ethics, the better.


    1. The Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, 1971 allows for abortion (or Medical Termination of Pregnancy) up till 12 weeks, under Section 2, which takes into account both the physical and mental health of the woman. And a medical termination is also allowed when there has been a failure of contraception, though it can be argued that the latter only applies to married women.


      1. IIn practice, the MTP act is usually liberally applied. Any woman who seeksseeks abortion before 20 weeks of pregnancy can get it with the help of the failure of contraception reason since there is no legal requirement for verification if this actually happened and it applies to both married and unmarried women. There are four legally permitted reasons for abortion, danger to mother’s health, danger to child’s health, failure of contraceptive and if child is product of rape.


  5. Some time after the human race came into being, sex was discovered.

    At some time after sex was discovered, the institution of marriage was born. Marriage begat judgement and criticism. But that is beside the point, the point being, marriage is a newer concept than plain old unmarried sex.

    So now you get it, it’s a fashion thing. The doctors can’t get over how old-fashioned men and women who engage in plain old sex are being and ask in hushed tones, ‘It’s a wonder these people still exist!’


  6. You are looking at this from only one viewpoint. I agree completely that the question ought to be whether she is sexually active than whether married or not. But the blame lies not just on the doctor, but on society in general. The doctor is in part forced to reframe the question. Take an example. A mother came to me worried that her 14 yr old girl child has just stopped menstruating. Now what I have been taught in medical college is pregnancy as a diagnosis must be ruled out before checking out other possible diagnosis for absence of menses, since it is by far the most common cause. In practice however, I couldn’t ask the girl to undergo UPT since her mother was present with her, who would outraged by the 24 yr old malemale doctor implying her daughter had sex. So I chose the coward’s option, telling the mother to visit a gynaecologist for something which could have been easily checked at the PHC whwhere I work. Don’t even get me started about STDs or worst of all, sexual abuse. STDs or sexual abuse become difficult to diagnose because the patient is often accompanied by some relative who gets outraged if we even suggest it. Worse, if the diagnosis happens to be wrong, there is every chance of being taken to court and sued. No private practitioner or doctor working in a private hospital can take that risk. So the issue with doctors is areflection of society’s own hypocrisy.


    1. I completely agree with you that doctor’s are a reflection of the sad society we live in. But, could you please explain to me from your point of view if we as a society should do everything we are forced to? And how is your example even begin to excuse putting young women’s health at risk (Which you did not do in the example you gave)? And why when I as an adult had gone alone, and for a pregnancy test, so clearly there was no question of me being offended, nor the question relevant medically, would one need to ask me this question, give unsolicited advice, or stares?


      1. I agree completely with your statement that we should not be forced by society to adopt its practices. The problem is that far too many doctors judge people for their so called “morality”. When I was in medical college, one day, we were all discussing marriage and premarital sex. Two guys openlyopenly admitted having had premarital sex. The very same guys when they discussed marriage, said that they would only marry ” virgins”. One of the guys said this horrible line to me – I don’t want other people’s used packages, the wrapping on mine must be fresh. ( I am not kidding, This is exactly what he said to me). When I protested, just one or two guys supported me. This regressive chauvinism is what finally results in the poor medical practices you describe. The problem is that sexual expression, especially women’s right to sexual expression is not seen to be a fundamental right by society. Right to sexuality or sexual expression is not seen to be a right in the sense of ,say, the right to vote. Even women’s organisations often don’t acknowledge the right of adults to have sex.


        1. Well, I don’t see how your viewpoint is any different. Why should doctor’s be excluded from society when it comes to the blame? If anything, they have an added responsibility. Their professionalism and “morality” in any case should be kept separate.


  7. While there is absolutely no disagreement that doctors are often judgemental about unmarried women having sex , there is a small legal issue. Sometimes in case of unmarried woman seeking abortion,the parents of the woman often attempt to label consensual sex as rape and later may accuse the doctor who performed he abortion of siding with the rapist.


  8. I don’t even know how to respond to your post, not only is it absolutely true, but I have heard of cases where even after an abortion, the hospital staff pull out your medical records to ask you questions about your previous abortion when you visit the GP over a cold!!!


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