For Those Who’ve Miscarried, Pro-Choice Rhetoric Can Be Triggering
I have a very clear memory of the first time I ever saw my son. It was a sweltering July morning and I was wearing a cream-colored sun dress with a cute crocheted neckline. My face was carefully made up to hide the dark circles under my eyes and the pink blotches on my cheeks — telltale signs that I’d been up all night crying. I was 12 weeks pregnant, and I was certain that there was something very wrong with the baby.
I had spotted on and off throughout my first trimester, sometimes quite heavily. My doctor told me that it was all within the range of normal and that I would find out at the 12-week scan if everything was all right. I remember begging her to schedule an earlier ultrasound for me, but for whatever reason, she couldn’t or wouldn’t. She just said that if the bleeding was heavy enough, I should go to the emergency room, but even then there wasn’t much they could do if I was miscarrying. I would just have to deal with it.
I’ve been pro-choice for as long as I can remember. My mother had been on the board of our local Planned Parenthood when I was growing up, and I’d had several friends in high school and university who had terminated pregnancies. When challenged on my beliefs, I’d throw out the same pro-choice arguments I’d heard other people make: that it wasn’t a baby, it was just a clump of cells. It was a zygote, a blastocyst, an embryo, but not a person. It was a ball of tissue. That abortion wasn’t murder because a fetus wasn’t really alive. And so on, and so forth.
Except that here I was pregnant with what was, to me, something that was very much a person. I knew that if I miscarried, it would feel like a death. And how could I reconcile that personal truth with the pro-choice arguments that I also knew to be true?
It can be challenging to find nuance in discussions about reproductive justice. The heated terms used by anti-choicers — murderer, baby-killer, holocaust of the unborn — necessarily draws similarly heated language from those of us who are pro-choice. Because of course you can’t counter accusations of slaughtering helpless children with anything other than a swift and furious negation of that idea. Fire, after all, can only be fought with fire.
But sometimes it feels that we become so entrenched in these arguments — incredibly important and urgent arguments — that we erase both the experiences of people who lost wanted pregnancies and those who choose to terminate but still find themselves unable to think of their pregnancy in such clinical terms.
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Miscarriage is already a difficult enough topic to broach. Although we know that as many as one in four pregnancies ends in miscarriage, there is still enough shame and stigma attached to it that it’s rarely spoken about publicly. And I worry that conversations like the ones that I’ve seen happening in the wake Hillary Clinton’s wonderfully vocal defense of late-term abortions in the last presidential debate contribute to the silencing of those who have experienced pregnancy loss. Because how do you mourn the death of something that so many people keep saying was never alive in the first place? How do you talk about the heartbreak of losing what so many people refer to as “a clump of cells”?
I know that there aren’t any easy answers here, and I’m not trying to criticize anyone for using some of the most common pro-choice language — language, by the way, that I have certainly used myself. We use the words we do with the best of intentions: to promote reproductive choice, to defend access to safe and legal abortions, and to protect the fundamental human rights of some of the most vulnerable populations. At the same time, it’s important to find a way to make the conversation less black and white and allow room for a greater breadth of experiences.
From a legislative point of view, the full spectrum of reproductive choice must be available to all people at all times. But from a personal point of view, we need to accept that much of what is discussed during abortion debates — things like when life begins and when personhood can be assigned — is subjective.
Perhaps the best way to start enacting change is to make miscarriage a larger part of the conversation surrounding reproduction. As Alexandra Kimball points out in her poignant essay “Unpregnant: the silent, secret grief of miscarriage,” the secrecy and shame surrounding pregnancy loss mean that we don’t have an adequate language with which to discuss it.
“I wandered around our living room and looked at my bookshelves, the rows of Cixous and Butler and de Beauvoir, and realized that feminism had nothing to say to me,” writes Kimball.
“Here, lined up left to right, was sexual assault, abortion, childbirth, body image: but nothing about miscarriage. In real-world activism, there was no equivalent to The Vagina Monologues for the miscarrying woman, no doulas for D&Cs, no demonstrations like a Take Back the Night or Slutwalk for the unpregnant [… ] After my miscarriage, when I thought about my abortion, it was with almost-envy for my younger self. I hadn’t fully appreciated how feminism had allowed me to process and eventually come to terms with that event. I had a language through which to express my feelings; I had other women’s stories to help me anticipate the abortion procedure and to realize what would come after.”
Pregnancy loss doesn’t need the same kind of movement that abortion or sexual assault require; there are no laws that must be changed and no particular rights to be protected. But, as Kimball points out, it does deserve a place within the broader feminist movement. How can a discussion that acknowledges so many variables and outcomes with regards to reproduction so broadly ignore an issue that impacts so many people? Hashtags like #ShoutYourAbortion, #NotOk, and #BeenRapedNeverReported have been incredibly successful in encouraging people to share stories about subjects that are deeply stigmatized. I can’t help but wonder what a similar hashtag might do to amplify discussions surrounding miscarriage.
I know that it won’t be easy to make debates surrounding reproductive justice more inclusive of those who have experienced miscarriages, but I also know that it is something that we have to figure out. Because the fight for reproductive justice is a fight based out of compassion, and that must also include compassion for those who might be alienated or triggered by pro-choice rhetoric.
I remember so perfectly the first time I ever saw my son. I was lying there on the little cot in one of the rooms in the radiology clinic, my dress pulled up practically to my armpits so that the tech could put the probe on my belly. I remember deliberately looking away from the monitor because I didn’t want to see the baby if the news was bad; instead, I asked my husband to let me know if and when it was safe to look.
And then I heard my husband say my name and I turned my head to look at the screen and there was my son, his tiny heart flickering in his chest. I was so relieved that I started laughing, and when I laughed the baby bounced inside of me and wriggled his stubby arms and legs.
To someone else, he might just have been a clump of tissue. And they wouldn’t be wrong or bad for feeling that way.
But he was always a baby to me, and that wasn’t wrong either.