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Janice’s story

It’s a scenario that could only have been made by a scriptwriter with the most bizarre imagination. A woman contemplates her belly, swollen with a pregnancy that is about to reach full term. She sits on her bed, a kitchen knife in hand. Then, without benefit of anesthesia, she slices her belly open and yanks out her child, still attached to her by its umbilical cord. She cuts the cord, wraps the baby in a blanket and shoves it under the mattress. The new mother then attempts to sew her “surgical” wound closed, using an ordinary needle and thread and still without benefit of anesthesia, but the pain proves too much and she cries out for help. Relatives find her amid the bloody bedclothes and rush her to a nearby hospital. Later, residents report finding the body of an infant buried in a pumping station, later identified as the woman’s baby. Police later say the baby was allegedly buried by two scavengers who were hired by the mother’s aunt.

It’s a scenario that would be too harsh and discomfiting to be shown on TV, even in the late hours. A movie made from the incident would be rated for adults only, and even then it would send chills down the spines of viewers. Many adult viewers would probably look away.

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And yet—the story is all too true. For this is indeed what Janice Calipe, reportedly a midwifery graduate, which accounts for her rudimentary knowledge of caesarean childbirth, did last week. Police also said that Janice’s husband abandoned her last year, which may in a way explain her decision to terminate her pregnancy in such a—that word again—bizarre manner.

Now police are preparing to file a case of either infanticide or criminal abortion against not just Janice but also her aunt and uncle who were with her in the house at the time she cut herself open. A police investigator told the media it was the aunt, Jennifer Lovino, who tried to recruit barangay officials to bury the infant’s body, but when the local officials said they would look into burying the baby in a public cemetery, Lovino instead talked two scavengers into getting rid of the remains.

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Janice, the mother, has been confined in hospital and reportedly underwent psychiatric evaluation over the weekend, although the results have yet to be released.

I can understand why authorities would want a judgment on Janice’s sanity, since her “feat” would have been attempted only by someone out of kilter, someone so unhinged she would risk terrible pain, not to mention trifling matters like infection and blood loss, to end her pregnancy.

Other women, after all, including an estimated half a million Filipino women a year, seek an abortion in the early weeks and months of pregnancy. But even then they risk their lives as well, if not to blood loss then to infection, which is common when the procedure is done in less than sterile conditions and by untrained and uneducated abortionists. Other women go to village midwives for help, and testimonies attest to the horrendous pain suffered by women who go for “deep massage,” as the abortionist attempts to terminate the pregnancy.

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And yet the plight of Janice and her baby speak to so many realities that Filipino women confront every day, that to paint the story only in terms of a crime, the act of a deranged person, a desperate woman’s revenge on a faithless spouse, or a horror film scenario, is to ignore the larger and deeper horrors that visit Pinoy moms each day.

More than half of all pregnancies in the Philippines are unwanted. Of course, some of the women eventually come around to accepting their pregnancy, even if they had not planned to or had wanted to wait awhile. But many others choose to terminate the pregnancy, and polls show that most of the women who go for an abortion already have one or more surviving children. Terminating the pregnancy, then, would be for them an act of survival (even as it is life-threatening), if not for them then for their surviving children.

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And yet, in the eyes of the law, the women and their abortionists are criminals. They face the very real threat of arrest, judgment and prison time. You must be familiar by now with news reports of sudden raids on suspected “abortion clinics” or on the homes of hilot or village midwives. While few result in conviction, they most often result in the closure of the raided clinics, or in driving the frightened hilot out of town.

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If a mother is too timid, too poor, or too resigned to her fate to risk an abortion, she accepts the pregnancy with stoicism and as much grace as she can muster.

True, some big families even among the poor do end up happy—even if the siblings have dramatic stories to tell about their struggles to stay in school and support the family. But how many children end up neglected and abused? How many mothers feel trapped by their reproductive fate and the daily struggle to bring food to the table?

Janice’s story may have been, that word again—too bizarre—to make sense. There must have been a reason she was driven to slice her belly open with a kitchen knife to get rid of the baby growing inside her. Was she put up to it by her aunt and uncle’s constant harangue? Was she suddenly “inspired” by watching a caesarean delivery during her midwifery course? Or was she sufficiently unhinged by abandonment, fright and anger that she braved the terrible pain to put an end to her dilemma?

Whatever, Janice’s story may well be every Filipino woman’s story—given the “right” combination of circumstances and motivation. Maybe we should stop thinking of horror movies and focus instead on the horrors we impose on women every day.

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TAGS: Childbirth, criminal abortion, featured column, infanticide, Janice calipe, unwanted pregnancy
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