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A Massachusetts woman is facing criminal charges for taking a prescription ulcer medication to abort her pregnancy. The woman comes from the Dominican Republic where abortions are illegal and women turn to the drug Misoprostol to terminate their pregnancies.

NPR's Tovia Smith reports the practice is becoming increasingly common in this country.

TOVIA SMITH: Eighteen-year-old Amber Abreu had only been in this country a year and a half when she found herself in a panic with an unintended pregnancy. Afraid to tell her mother and unable to find the money to pay for an abortion herself, she did what many women in her home country do, she took Misoprostol and she waited for the bleeding to start. After several days of increasing pain, Amber ended up in the emergency room and delivered a baby girl just over a pound who lived for four days.

A social worker at the hospital alerted authorities, and Amber was arrested and held on $15,000 bail for violating an 1840s law against procuring a miscarriage, leaving many abortion rights advocates, like Susan Yanow, outraged.

Ms. SUSAN YANOW (Co-Founder, Abortion Access Project): I was appalled and saddened that a young woman who clearly was in a crisis in her life went to jail. She has a right as a woman to take care of her own body.

SMITH: But abortion is legal in this state only up to 24 weeks, and prosecutors say Amber was 25 weeks pregnant. They had been considering charging her with murder, but ultimately backed off, saying they didn't believe they could make the case to a jury. Amber is now facing seven years in prison for using the drug Misoprostol - which is marketed for ulcers - to unlawfully cause her miscarriage.

The drug is the same kind that's used legally in clinics around the nation for medical abortions. But UC Davis sociologist Carole Joffe says it's quickly becoming more common as a kind of home remedy for abortions, especially among Latin American women.

Professor CAROLE JOFFE (Sociologist, UC Davis): I don't want to use the word epidemic loosely here, but I think we are anticipating, you know, a steady growing stream of these kinds of tragedies.

SMITH: By definition, this kind of do-it-yourself abortion is a hard thing to document. But young Latina women - like 24-year-old Lizette Ortiz(ph), who recently came to Boston from Santo Domingo - says it's very common.

Ms. LIZETTE ORTIZ: (Through translator) For example, the teenage girls, even the 13 years old, they don't want to tell their parents they are pregnant, so they take the pills.

SMITH: Ortiz says many women can't come up with several hundred dollars to get a clinical abortion. And she says many Latina women are more comfortable taking a pill than going to a clinic, anyway.

Ms. ORTIZ: (Through translator) Some women are afraid of the clinics because many women have got infection in the clinics in my country and they have died. And also, people prefer the pill because it's faster, and you can just do it in the home and it's more private.

SMITH: While advocates say Misoprostol is generally safe early in pregnancy, they concede that since the drug is being used off-label, it can be dangerous if women take too much or take it too late - like Amber. They're hoping cases like hers will help educate women, but at the same time, they're wary of drawing too much attention to the technique and prompting a crackdown. Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas is with the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health.

Ms. JESSICA GONZALEZ-ROJAS (National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health): It's really under the radar, and we're hoping to sort of, you know, not bring to the forefront - we have concerns around, you know, legislators now looking at this issue and maybe putting further restrictions on accessing Misoprostol.

SMITH: Misoprostol is sold by prescription in the U.S., but is widely available on the Internet and on the street. In many Latin American countries, the pills are sold over the counter for about a dollar. And it's not illegal to import the pills to this country. Amber Abreu told authorities she got her pills from a friend in her native Dominican Republic. Marie Sturgis, with Massachusetts Citizens for Life, says she'd like to see tighter controls and a crackdown on those who provide the drug to pregnant women.

Ms. MARIE STURGIS (Executive Director, Massachusetts Citizens for Life): We're not in the Dominican Republic. In this country, we have standards of care. We have rules and regulations, and they must be followed.

SMITH: But abortion rights advocates say cracking down on Misoprostol will only end up hurting women even more. For all its potential misuse, they say Misoprostol is a lot safer than many other things women have tried in the past to terminate their pregnancies themselves.

Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston.

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