I was living in Quito, Ecuador, when I found out I was pregnant while having a miscarriage.
My bleeding was heavy, so my boyfriend and I went to a hospital for help.
There, doctors and nurses treated me as if I had attempted an abortion at home.
I bled as the doctor chatted with the nurse. My boyfriend and I perched on plastic chairs, scared and confused. The nurse rolled her eyes in my direction. The doctor's mouth curled in a sneer. I heard the word "aborto" — "abortion" in Spanish. Then they turned from us to exchange some leisurely banter.
I'd been in Quito, Ecuador, for over a year. My Spanish was good, but I'd never learned the word for miscarriage. "I'm not pregnant anymore" is what I managed to say.
Hours earlier, I'd woken to sheets dark with blood and cramps worse than any I'd ever experienced. Looking at the sheets, I knew this was no ordinary heavy period, but I didn't know I'd been pregnant.
When the bleeding didn't stop, we went to the hospital. I gazed out the car window at Quito's colonial-era buildings. I loved this city so high in the Andes. I had a vague idea about abortion being illegal, but I didn't think that had anything to do with my situation.
I was wrong.
I learned that because abortion was illegal in Ecuador, many women underwent unsafe abortions or tried to self-abort. When things went wrong, they'd go to the hospital as a last resort to stop the bleeding or treat the infection, claiming to be miscarrying to avoid legal prosecution. In 2014, deaths from these abortions accounted for 15.6% of all deaths in the country, Reuters reported.
I became a criminal suspect
Women who, like me, experience incomplete miscarriages may require medical intervention to stem bleeding and make sure all of the tissue passes from the uterus. The treatment for an incomplete miscarriage is the same as the treatment for an elective abortion.
When the nurse finally put me on a gurney, I tried to convey that I wanted local and not general anesthesia. Being unconscious in an unfamiliar hospital, at the mercy of people who treated me with suspicion and disdain, scared me far more than the procedure itself.
I learned a harsh truth that day: A ban on abortion isn't just a ban on abortion. It turns every woman having a gynecological emergency into a criminal suspect.
In a sense I was lucky. As a foreigner who could pay, I likely received better care than the average Ecuadorian would. I was pretty disoriented at the time and have blocked out the details. But I think we paid $200, in cash, before they would even operate on me.
The next thing I remember is my boyfriend gently shaking me in the recovery room. "You've been out for almost an hour," he said. "I thought you were in a coma."
I was glad to be back in the US when we returned
When I returned to the US, I was relieved to be back where abortion was safe and legal, and where no one would suspect me of faking a miscarriage to get an abortion. I was back in a country where many women — myself included — got their primary care from clinics, often for free, that also provided abortions.
The overturning of Roe v. Wade throws all that out the window. If you miscarry in a US state that restricts abortion, you may face worse than I did in Ecuador. There are already examples of US women being prosecuted for miscarriages. This may only become more widespread.
I don't want to demonize Ecuador or Latin America, as abortion is legal in Argentina, Cuba, Uruguay, and Mexico, sort of. In December, Mexico's Supreme Court declared that abortion was no longer a crime, though its exact status varies by state. The difference is, in Mexico, reproductive rights are moving forward, while in the US, they're being rolled back.
Erin Van Rheenen is a writer, teacher, and traveler who just finished a novel set in Central America.
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