Expat Advice: Having an abortion in China

Getting an abortion in ChinaI just wanted to share my story in case (like I was) there is another female expat out there looking for information on the experience of having an abortion in China. I was frantically searching the web for information on this when I found out I was pregnant here and found next to nothing, so maybe my story can help someone or put another worried expat at ease.

I found out I was pregnant while on May Day vacation with my (Chinese) boyfriend in Beijing. I live and study in a small town in northern Shaanxi province, a tiny city where practically everyone knows me and my boyfriend, so in Beijing at least we could go to buy a pregnancy test at Watson’s without risking seeing someone we knew.

We did the test back at our hotel and it was positive.

Our time in Beijing was running out and I accepted the fact that we’d have to wait to go back to our small, 4th tier city and get it done there.

We came back on a Friday night, and set out for the hospital the next morning. For those who are wondering about the specific hospital I went to, it was 榆林第一医院 in 榆林 city of Shaanxi province, and I highly reccomend it. Very modern, clean and (somewhat) professional.

The first order of business was to check-in (挂号). We filled out a simple paper with my name, sex, age; and handed it to the clerk. She formatted and gave us a special card (it looks like a credit card with a bar code)  that electronically tracks the procedures you do and the prescriptions you get. That was kinda cool. The check-in procedure was simple and any expat with basic Chinese skills can do it alone. The card and check-in cost 10 yuan.

Next we went upstairs and found the women’s health-OB/GYN area (妇产科). It’s important to note at this particular hospital, there’s a 2 hour period in the middle of the day where the doctors are off work. So the day is divided into two parts, morning and afternoon. I suggest checking out the hospitals hours or calling beforehand to find out when you can see a doctor, because waiting in the OB/GYN area for so long was a little awkward, especially when all the Chinese people around are asking you questions/trying to talk to you/find out why you’re there.

When all the doctors got back from lunch, we had to go into a small office where there were two doctors with computers. They’re the ladies you go see and tell what you’re there for and what you need. We told them I hadn’t had my period in a long time, and they asked for specific dates and if I had any symptoms of pregnancy. After that, they typed up some things on the computer, scanned our card, and printed out a slip/form (单子) for an ultrasound. Before doing each procedure or test, you have to pay. So we paid downstairs, got a receipt, and took the receipt back upstairs to the ultrasound department.

I’m not sure why they do ultrasounds to check for pregnancy rather than a typical pee test, but this way you can actually see the results instantly and it’s kind of cool to watch the screen and see your insides. This is called a B超 or 超声.

I waited my turn and went into the room. They had me unbutton my pants a tiny bit, squirted on some gel, and did the test. Just FYI, they have to press really hard to get a picture and it was a little uncomfortable, but it doesn’t really hurt. On the screen they highlighted a part, which I suppose is the fetus, and confirmed I was pregnant. Then they printed out a page with two pictures of the results. The ultrasound cost around 60 yuan.

After that, we had to report back to that little office from before. When we showed them the results and confirmed we wanted to terminate the pregnancy, they sent us off for more tests. Next up was an ECG (heart test) which they call 心电图. Like before, we got a slip that we took downstairs to pay with and then headed up to the testing room. I think you can see by now that there’s a lot of running around in this process. The whole shebang takes an entire afternoon, so plan accordingly.

The ECG is my least favorite because you have to (partially) take off your shirt, bra, and expose your legs. I had forgotten to shave my legs that day so that was embarrassing  but quite frankly the least of my problems at the time. It was a simple test that took less than 2 minutes and cost about 40 yuan. It’s the same ECG test you probably got after applying for a job/to a university.

We ran back to the office and got another slip for the next test–a blood test. This cost about 65 yuan and was simple, the results only took 3 minutes to get. It’s just a standard blood drawing procedure. I noticed the lady who drew my blood wasn’t wearing gloves though, and had my boyfriend mention that to her. She looked embarrassed and sheepishly said, “Um… it’s just easier to do without gloves.” Um, okay.

So by this point we had done an ultrasound, ECG, and blood test. The final test was the worst part–the internal exam. I was led into a room with two gynecological chairs with a curtain between them. At most hospitals in China it’s likely similar, they have to get many people done in a short amount of time, so they do it assembly-line style. My boyfriend couldn’t come into this room with me so I had to communicate with the doctor myself, which really wasn’t a problem. She gave me a little blue sheet, told me to put it on the chair, remove one leg of my pants and underwear then lie on the table.

There are a lot of girls going in, out and around these rooms; but I was still a little shell shocked when I saw another girl (patient) basically walk in and decide to watch me take my pants and underwear off. I stood there looking dumb for a few minutes before the doctor caught on and told her to GTFO. So don’t be surprised if there’s very little privacy while getting your tests and exams done. This is China, after all.

At the same time as me there’s another girl behind the curtain beside me and she’s getting undressed too, but I make it onto the table first so the doctor inspects me first. I should mention now that I have never gotten a gyno exam in my life, so I was feeling really embarrassed and awkward. The doctor tells me not to be nervous and she pulls out a sterile, disposable, plastic speculum from its package.

The attitude and method they use while conducting this exam is similar to how some people feel that ripping off a band-aid as fast and violently as possible will get it over sooner and with less suffering. So she shoved (there was actual shoving going on) the speculum into my vagina, wasted no time turning and then expanding it as fast as possible. Ow. Ow. OW. My eyes widened and I was seconds away from complaining about the pain (I have a somewhat high pain tolerance, but this was pretty bad) and then it was finally over. She pulled out the speculum and said it’s all normal down there. The next step was to, as she put it, “摸一下” where she put two fingers inside me and pressed down onto my abdomen with the other hand. That wasn’t pleasant either but it was leagues better than step 1. She ‘d in 3 places, each time asking, “疼不疼?” to which I answered 不疼. Then it was over and I could finally get up and put my pants on.

As I was wrangling with my jeans and boots I could hear her move on to examine the girl next to me, who made a very vocal protest about the pain during her examination. I don’t blame her, it wasn’t fun, but the sounds she made sounded Japanese AV-esque and was really disturbing.

So with the last examination over we could go to the office again and get the final verdict from the two ladies. They looked over all the tests and said I was fit for an abortion.

There are two options: medical abortion (药流) and surgical abortion (人工流产手术, which is abbreviated as 人流). Before you jump on it and immediately choose the medical abortion, like I wanted to, you should consider the facts. The lady told me that overall, the medical abortion only has an 80% effectiveness (not sure if that’s true), sometimes causing incomplete abortions. Also there’s a much longer recovery period and many nasty side effects like vomiting, nausea and excess bleeding.

Also it’s not as if you can just take the medication and go home to abort in peace, the pill comes in two steps. You take pill number 1 first when at home, and then a day or two later have to come back to the hospital and take pill number 2 under the supervision of a doctor, who will watch you bleed out for what can be up to 3 hours. They have to ensure that the fetus is completely aborted so I imagine there’s some inspecting of the stuff coming out of you going on.

It’s not at all as pleasant or non-invasive as it seems at first. So I chose surgical abortion, the cost of which is 1500 yuan. When I made my boyfriend question the lady about anesthesia during the procedure, at first the lady wanted to write me up for a friggin’ epidural. Apparently this option is cheaper than getting full anesthesia (going to sleep) so she figured that’s the one we wanted. But I made a big fuss to my boyfriend about getting a needle in the spine so we got it changed to the full anesthesia. This part is really important. Make sure you’re clear when selecting anesthesia options, because I was still worried even after going home about them accidentally misunderstanding and changing it back to the epidural option, getting an injection in the spine is not something anyone looks forward to.

So the day was over, the appointment was set for Monday (they don’t offer the surgical abortion service on weekends), and I got to go home. They told me to not eat or drink water the morning of the operation.

The morning rolls around and I went to the hospital bright and early. We had to walk around and find the doctor who for some reason wasn’t in his office at the time (the only male doctor in the entire process you will meet is probably going to be the one who does the actual abortion). We found him, talked for a bit, and he wrote up a slip that we used to go pay. After payment we went up to the “abortion theatre.” It was a very nice, clean looking room with lots of equipment and everything was all ready for me. I took off one leg of my pants and underwear and mounted the table. I was surprised that so many doctors (5 or 6) were present for the operation.

I was in the room without my boyfriend, so I chatted with the doctors while they were preparing. They put an IV drip in one hand and a heart monitor on the other. It was the first time they discovered I could actually speak Chinese so we all had a laugh while the female nurses compliment my skin tone and looks. They strapped my legs onto the table, but the straps were soft and very elastic so it didn’t feel confining or horror movie like at all. For some reason, at that point I wasn’t scared or in a bad mood. The doctor put a 氧气 (oxygen) mask over my face and turned on the IV drip with the sleepy stuff in it. My last words to the doctor before completely blacking out were “瞌睡了…

I woke up feeling very drugged and dazed. There were nurses struggling to put my underwear and pants back on and suddenly my boyfriend came out of nowhere, picked me up, and carried me to a bed on the other side of the room. I was half out of it and decided I wanted to get a pad from my purse and put on, but I soon realized that the doctors had already put a thick wad of tissues into my underwear to catch the blood.

At that point, I felt no pain at all. In fact, it was really alright. I’d even go as far as to say it was nice. If you’ve gotten your wisdom teeth out, just imagine the feeling of waking up all happy and loopy in the dentist’s chair. Not bad at all. Also, my boyfriend informed me that he had only been waiting a little more than seven minutes for the operation to be over. At first I didn’t believe the doctor when he said it’d take less than 15 minutes, but it seriously does go that fast.

A few minutes passed and I could finally stand. Still feeling good. We walk into the hall and found a place for me to sit while my boyfriend went off and got all the prescriptions filled. They gave us two different antibiotics to prevent infection in the uterus and something called “motherwart” in English which supposedly helps “replenish blood.” I’m not sure about the effectiveness of the last one, but the doctors told me to take it, so I’ll do it. After about half an hour I felt pretty sober, so we got a cab and went home.

And that’s it. So here I am now, sitting in my dorm, only a few hours after having had the abortion done and I’m not feeling bad or painful at all. Honestly the experience was not bad, despite being slightly panicked and worried throughout the process. I’ll give some final important notes/tips for those who are considering getting an abortion done here in China.

  1. Bring a Chinese friend. Preferably a female friend that you trust. There wasn’t much hard vocabulary I came across except the names of medicines and the description of the operation procedure. But you’re going to want someone to give the doctor clear instructions about your choice of abortion method and the anesthesia option you want.
  2. Be aware of the time. The first day, you’ll be doing a lot of tests and going back and forth between floors, paying and then running up to do various tests. For the test day, you’ll need an entire afternoon. For the operation day, you’ll need just a little more than an hour, with the actual procedure being less than 10-15 minutes. Get there early on operation day so you don’t have to wait long.
  3. Bring a lot of money. It wasn’t too expensive, but you won’t want to be caught without enough to finish all your tests. The entire two days cost me about 2300 yuan, including the operation, prescriptions, tests and various other fees.
  4. The testing is way worse than the actual abortion. Seriously, I promise. The abortion itself is nothing to worry about and you will feel next to no pain at all afterwards. It feels kind of crampy and bloaty, just like a period that’s slightly worse than normal. The testing process, however, was stressful, a little scary, and the internal exam was painful.
  5. You can’t have sex for a month afterwards. At least that’s what the doctors said, so I’m sticking to it. Also don’t forget to take your prescriptions.
  6. My final piece of advice, get the surgical abortion option. It sounds scary at first, especially with the word “surgical” in front of it, but honest to God it wasn’t a bad experience at all. I would much rather do this option than be all nauseated for days and have to bleed out for hours under the supervision of a doctor. Also the success rate is so much higher this way.

I sincerely hope the retelling of my experience can help another girl who,  like I was, is scared of doing an abortion or similar procedure here in China. I hope someone can find this information valuable and wish you the best of luck.


Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on the China subreddit, /r/China, and appears here with the permission of the author.