We should be careful not to draw the wrong lessons from our pro-life advocacy.
Just lately, I’ve been noticing a lot of talk about Miscarriage Awareness. It seems a worthy subject for reflection as we move into the new liturgical year, since Advent is a good time for reflecting on pregnancy and birth. Life is miraculous, but sometimes the miracle ends sooner than we expect. How should we think about those sad occasions when a human life ends almost as soon as it’s begun?
Many people don’t realize how common this actually is; as many as a quarter of clinically recognized pregnancies will end in miscarriage, most frequently within a few weeks of conception. Anecdotally, it seems to me that most mothers I know have experienced miscarriage at one time or another. Throughout history there have undoubtedly been many children conceived whose existence was never detected even by their own parents. Especially for pro-lifers, this realization raises a complicated range of emotions and questions. How much sadness is it appropriate (or obligatory) to feel when a child is lost in the early stages of pregnancy? Is it important to acknowledge or commemorate these children in some way? What do earthly families owe to the never-born?
On the level of emotion, people’s reactions to a miscarriage will vary widely, which is perfectly appropriate. Circumstances differ, as do individuals, and pregnancy loss will understandably be more difficult for some than for others. For the couple who struggles with infertility, a miscarriage might be devastating. Later-term pregnancy loss will generally be harder for anyone, especially if the mother has had the remarkable experience of feeling the baby moving inside her. There are also women who experience multiple early miscarriages in a relatively short space of time, which can be particularly wrenching.
No one should be ashamed of the sadness they feel over a lost pregnancy, and mothers especially should be reassured that they are almost certainly not at fault. In the great majority of cases, miscarriages are caused by factors beyond anyone’s control. If a mother shows a pattern of early miscarriage, it may be worth investigating whether there are medical options (for example, hormonal supplements) that might help to forestall possible future miscarriages. Still, assuming that the mother wasn’t engaging in obviously irresponsible behaviors (e.g. recreational drug use) while pregnant, she shouldn’t burden herself with worries about what she might have done wrong. She almost certainly didn’t precipitate the miscarriage by drinking unfiltered water or stumbling on the stairs.
It’s good to spread this information, and good for women to offer one another support as it’s needed. At the same time, I’m ambivalent about the call for more public discussion of miscarriage. I understand why this might seem desirable. Parents coping with pregnancy loss may take comfort from knowing that they are “in good company,” but because most miscarriages happen early (quite often before the pregnancy has been widely announced), it may just seem awkward to mention it or to ask for support. This is one concern that motivates Bethany Mandel’s call for an end to the tradition of waiting until the second trimester to announce a pregnancy. If we broadcast new life from the get-go, she reasons, we will be better equipped both to celebrate it and, where necessary, to mourn it.
This feeds into another issue: the question of how we can best extend our pro-life convictions to the topic of miscarriage. For people who have dedicated considerable resources to fighting the evil of abortion, it seems imperative to recognize in a robust way the full humanity of the unborn. Abortion is a deeply evil act because it involves the unjust killing of a precious, unique human being. Miscarriage is obviously quite different insofar as it isn’t voluntary, but it still involves the