Laeticia is a nurse and center manager at the Marie Stopes International (MSI) clinic in Port Elizabeth, a coastal city on the eastern cape of South Africa. It’s an important week for her, as tomorrow will be her last day with MSI. She has decided to retire.
Laeticia started her career as a teacher. “I did a teachers course because my parents wanted me to be a teacher,” she recounts. “When I finished, I felt, ‘This is not me.’ So, I went [back to school] for nursing because I had a passion for nursing. I loved to be taking care of people.” Laeticia did her general nursing and midwifery diploma, completing her degree in 1978.
Soon after, she was transferred to a gynecology ward. For Laeticia, that’s where everything changed. She was exposed to reproductive health care of all kinds, such as treating sexually transmitted infections and assisting women who needed hysterectomies. And it was where she first cared for women who had attempted unsafe abortions, on their own.
At that time, abortion was illegal in South Africa, so women would resort to dangerous methods of ending their pregnancies.
“I was touched by these women, because they were young. Some of them had their careers ahead of them, some of them were still studying, some were working,” Laeticia explains, adding that it was a strict taboo for women to become pregnant while unmarried. “It was like a crime. If you were working, you would lose your job if you fell pregnant out of marriage. If you were in school, you would be expelled from school - you’re not going to study anymore. And your family also would sort of reject you because you had disgraced them. So these poor women would try by all means to get rid of their pregnancies.”
Laeticia was caring for women who had desperately attempted an unsafe abortion on a daily basis.
“It was painful and would make you sad,” she says, adding that many women got serious infections and ended up in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU). Many died because of the complications from unsafe abortions. “In the mornings, I still remember walking into the ward and there would be stream of trolleys going into [the operating] theater to treat women who had attempted an unsafe abortion.”
The women whom Laeticia saw were desperate. “Lots of things were happening. They would drink this or that, medications not prescribed by doctors. So, they were very dangerous,” she explained, “They would take anything. They would mix things, medications, maybe from the bush. They would use Jeyes fluid (a cleaning solution), they would use bleach, knitting needles, whatever that they could use to get rid of the pregnancy.”
To make matters worse, women could be jailed for undergoing an abortion. And health care providers could be imprisoned for providing abortion services to women in need. According to Laeticia, women were scared to talk about abortion and wouldn’t seek medical help up until something drastic happened because they feared being interrogated or punished.
Even with this risk, some of Laeticia’s nursing school peers attempted unsafe abortions to stay in school.
“There was one incident where in a nurse died from a backstreet abortion. She ended up in the ICU and she died. If abortion was legal in South Africa, she shouldn’t have died. ... She should have been my age by now, happy, with kids. But it is sad, may her soul rest in peace.”
When abortion was legalized in South Africa in 1996, Laeticia became an advocate and educator for access to safe abortion care. During that time, when the law was still controversial, she was hounded with questions. But it was her faith that kept her strong.
“God doesn’t allow us to be judgmental. Who are we to judge other people? That kept me going at Marie Stopes because I knew that I was doing the right thing for women. That was the only thing that was in my mind - I’m doing the right thing for women.”
This mantra of compassion and love is still strong in Laeticia. Throughout her time as a nurse, she encouraged her clients to focus on their goals, to strive to reach them and to be courageous.
“I always say to them that it’s like the sea - you see the waves in the sea? If you look at the waves, they are up and down, up and down. So is life - it’s got its own ups and downs. You must have the courage to get up, to stand up for yourself. Clients will stand up, they will give me a hug, they say thank you. No client left me crying here. They will stand up from that chair and give me a hug. That’s what I want, for people to be happy. Then I know I’ve done a good job.”
And with that, Laeticia is content to retire.