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
death of a precious, unique human being. Even if we can’t prevent it, surely we should recognize it (both in our emotions and in our social mores) as a significant event, calling for a significant response?
A representative example of that sort of thinking can be found here, where writer Bridget Green recommends that we demonstrate the seriousness of our pro-life views by naming never-born children, holding funerals for them, and even mentioning them in social contexts when asked about family size. This seems to her like the best way of acknowledging the humanity of all human beings, regardless of their ages or the length of their lives. I think there are many good and admirable elements to these sentiments, but I would also urge caution. Though I’m not inclined to begrudge despondent parents any gesture that might be comforting, I also think it’s possible to make some mistakes with this kind of zealous advocacy. If we’re insufficiently attentive to the complexities of miscarriage, we may end up exacerbating the pain or guilt associated with miscarriage. I think it’s even possible that we could inadvertently undermine the pro-life cause through an inappropriate response to pregnancy loss.
Metaphysically, I firmly believe that lost fetuses (even those who are just a few days old) are precious and unique human beings. A child lost through miscarriage is my full ontological equal. In the sight of God, his life is as important as my own, or as the lives of my already-born children. From my merely mortal perspective, however, children lost to me through miscarriage are significantly different from the already born ones. That’s true for at least one very important reason: I don’t know them, and never have. My ability to love and grieve for them is necessarily limited, because I simply have no access to their individual character or personhood, or to any of the features that would distinguish them as unique.
I myself have been in the position (more than once) of hearing from a physician’s lips that, “I’m sorry, but there’s nothing we can do to save this pregnancy.” To me, it was not a deeply traumatic experience. I found it sobering to reflect that a son or daughter had moved swiftly through this mortal life without us ever getting the chance to become acquainted. It’s fun to consider whether the opportunity might arise in the world to come. At the same time, I think it’s rather beautiful, and also deeply comforting, to reflect that there are souls who pass through this life without ever experiencing its hardships, in accordance with God’s will. Though I do know something about the controversies surrounding Limbo and the fate of the unbaptized, I’ve never been able to feel much concern over the souls of the never-born. These children are entrusted fully to the mercy of God, and I can’t but believe that this must be a good and blessed fate.
To my mind, this “blessed hiddenness” is one of the most beautiful things about the never-born. Having never been received into a mortal human community, they are subject to none of the burdens and challenges that naturally come with this-worldly human relationships. And since we, their human parents, were never given the opportunity to nurture or teach these children, I can only conclude that God has assumed full responsibility for their moral and spiritual well-being. In that spirit, I myself never felt the desire to make large commemorative gestures (such as funerals) for never-born children, to discuss the details publicly, or to mourn due dates or anniversaries. It’s very hard to commemorate a person whom nobody (this side of the grave) ever knew. But, reflecting that this was evidently God’s will, I think it’s all right to conclude that that sort of commemoration simply is not expected of us.
I want to reiterate at this point that I don’t regard my own emotional response to miscarriage as correctper se. Even without knowing a lost child individually, we can still be deeply saddened by the loss of that opportunity for love. Accepting miscarriage as God’s will would have been difficult for me in the early years of my marriage, when my husband and I struggled with infertility. I also find that regular fetal movement awakens protective instincts towards a developing baby, which are generally accompanied by greater anxiety about the health of the pregnancy. Just in general, our feelings about a miscarriage can be complicated by a whole range of factors, and I have no difficulty feeling compassion towards parents who are devastated by pregnancy loss.
Even so, I think it’s important to be circumspect about the subject of miscarriage. It is neither fitting nor compassionate to implicitly demand that people respond to miscarriage with a type of grief that humans don’t naturally feel for unknown persons (even those to whom we are related by blood). Public lamentation doesn’t always help people, and sometimes there are good reasons for being reticent to discuss very personal life events. If we become too strident about demanding rituals on behalf of the never-born that feel unnatural or overdrawn, onlookers may also (understandably) interpret this as a kind of moral exhibitionism, which could actually lead them to doubt the reality or reasonableness of our pro-life convictions.
Lastly, we should be careful not to draw the wrong lessons from our pro-life advocacy. Abortion is indeed monstrous, as an act of violence committed against our own children. Abortion slams the door on love. It represents a direct refusal to co-operate with God’s will. The situation could not be more different for the parent who accepts that God has chosen to recall a particular child to himself, instead of introducing him to a human family. Here the door of love is wide open, and we remain attentive to God’s will. We simply accept that for some, God may have envisioned a different sort of upbringing from the one we ourselves would devise.
Rachel Luteaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas and writes for Crisis Magazine and The Federalist. Follow her on Twitter at @rclu.