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The Little-Known Problem of Chemical Pregnancies

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September 23, 2015


She came up to me before class on a Tuesday afternoon with tears in her eyes. “Can I talk to you about something?” she asked quietly. I was taken aback; this was a girl I had only met a couple months earlier in the very classroom we were waiting outside of, who I spoke to twice a week, and whose last name I didn’t know, yet I was the person she chose to turn to during a time of crisis. She was clearly upset, so I nodded, and she said those two words that can be spoken with great joy or harrowing fear:

“I’m pregnant.”

My natural, knee-jerk reaction was to gasp. And then I asked the typical and insensitive question: “Are you sure?”

She started to cry then and told me about how she had been feeling a little off for several days—she’d been exhausted, weak, and nauseated and thought at first that she had a mild stomach bug. But then her roommate had jokingly told her, “Well, you could be pregnant.” She explained to me that that had sent her mind whirling in directions she didn’t want it to go. Her period was due within a day or two, but her roommate’s casual remark had worried her enough that she went out and bought a test, hoping to reassure herself that was she just getting herself worked up for nothing.

And then she saw the faint plus sign glaring at her, and she hardly had time to react because she had to drive to campus for class, her thoughts racing, thoughts she verbalized to me: how had this happened? She took birth control. She and her boyfriend used condoms. How was she going to afford an abortion when most of her income went to rent and groceries? What was she going to do?

Thursday of the following week, she approached me again, this time smiling. “I got my period!” she crowed excitedly. “Tuesday night, there was blood everywhere!”

I’d never seen someone so glad to get their period. I was happy for her, but also confused. Luckily for me, she had answers, because she’d been puzzled as well and went to the doctor the day before to figure out exactly what had happened.

She’d experienced a chemical pregnancy, also known as a very early miscarriage. The second name for it makes it more clear and describes it as exactly what it is: a miscarriage that occurs very early on in the pregnancy, within the first few weeks.

The reason it is referred to as a chemical pregnancy is that when a pregnancy test is taken, enough of hCG (human chorionic gonadotropin, the hormone produced during pregnancy), sometimes referred to as the ‘pregnancy chemical,’ is present in the urine sample for the test to show a positive, though the pregnancy ends early enough—typically because of a chromosomal anomaly—that the only proof of it ever existing in the first place is chemical.

These miscarriages are extremely common, accounting for between 50 and 80% of all miscarriages. Many women don’t even realize that they’re pregnant because the miscarriage occurs around the expected time of their period, or just a few days later. However, some women do know. In some cases, like that of my friend, they are overwhelmed by a wave of relief after days of worry. On the other end of the spectrum, women who are trying to get pregnant and are consistently taking tests can be hit with devastating disappointment after days of elation.

Nothing can be done to prevent chemical pregnancies. But what we can do is provide better education so more people know about them. I hadn’t heard the term until my friend had one. When educating about pregnancy and sexual health, the topic should be touched on, as it affects a large percentage of the population. With so many impacted by it, it really should be covered. Until the day comes where it is a commonly known phrase, we will have to rely on posts like this to educate and inform.


Image by Klaus Hoffmeier [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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