I bled when the doctor chatted with the nurse. My friend and I sat on plastic chairs, scared and confused. The nurse rolled her eyes at me. The doctor’s mouth twisted into a sneer. I heard the word “aborto” – “abortion” in Spanish. Then they turned away from us to exchange a few leisurely jokes.
I was in Quito, Ecuador for over a year. My Spanish was good, but I had never learned the word for miscarriage. “I’m not pregnant anymore,” I managed to choke out.
Hours earlier I had woken up to sheets dark with blood and cramps worse than any I had ever experienced. Looking at the sheets I knew this was no ordinary heavy period, but I didn’t know I was pregnant.
When the bleeding didn’t stop, we went to the hospital. I looked out the car window at Quito’s colonial-era buildings. I loved this city so high in the Andes. I had a vague notion that abortion was illegal, but I didn’t think it had anything to do with my situation.
I was wrong.
I learned that many women performed unsafe abortions or attempted abortions themselves because abortion was illegal in Ecuador. If anything went wrong, they would go to the hospital to stop the bleeding or treat the infection as a last resort, claiming to have miscarried 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 have incomplete miscarriages like me may need medical intervention to stem bleeding and ensure all tissue comes out of the uterus. Treatment for an incomplete miscarriage is the same as treatment for an elective abortion.
When the nurse finally put me on a stretcher, 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 contempt, frightened me far more than the procedure itself.
That day I learned a hard truth: A ban on abortion isn’t just a ban on abortion. It makes any woman who has a gynecologic emergency a criminal suspect.
In a way I was lucky. As a foreigner who could pay, I was probably better taken care of than the average Ecuadorian. I was pretty disoriented at the time and ignored the details. But I think we paid $200 in cash before they even operated on me.
The next thing I remember, my boyfriend was gently shaking me in the recovery room. “You were gone for almost an hour,” he said. “I thought you were in a coma.”
I was happy to be back in the US when we got back
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 in order to get an abortion. I was back in a country where many women – myself included – received their basic care, often for free, in clinics that also performed abortions.
The overthrow of Roe v. Wade throws all of this out the window. If you miscarry in a US state that restricts abortion, you could be worse off than I was in Ecuador. There are already examples of US women being prosecuted for miscarriages. This can only be spread more widely.
I don’t want to demonize Ecuador or Latin America because abortion is sort of legal in Argentina, Cuba, Uruguay and Mexico. In December, Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled that abortion is no longer a crime, although its exact status varies from state to state. The difference is that in Mexico reproductive rights are advancing while in the US they are being reversed.
Erin Van Rheenen is a writer, teacher, and traveler who has just finished a novel set in Central America.