February 4, 2020 (Society for the Protection of Unborn Children) — In December, there was widespread media coverage of a new study suggesting that one in six women who lose a baby in early pregnancy experience long-term symptoms of post-traumatic stress. It was being discussed in workplaces, trended on Twitter, and sparked much needed conversations about how we as a society take care of women who experience the devastation of losing a baby.
The findings are certainly striking. In the study of 650 women, by Imperial College London and KU Leuven in Belgium, 29% showed symptoms of post-traumatic stress one month after pregnancy loss, declining only to 18% after nine months. One month following their loss, 24% had symptoms of anxiety and 11% of depression. Given just how common miscarriage is (up to one in two women experience pregnancy loss) this represents a huge mental health toll.
Being a part of the pro-life movement means I probably think about motherhood, pregnancy and life in the womb more than most. But it wasn't until two close friends suffered three miscarriages between them in a short space of time that I got some idea of the true impact. I must have known intellectually how common it was, but I never thought about it happening to my friends — especially healthy women in their twenties who did everything “right”. Likewise, while I knew that losing a baby was a sad thing to happen, that these were babies I would have loved, visited, bought presents for, and the mothers are friends still living with the losses made it something much more real and devastating.
In the wake of the study, many women have been bravely sharing their experiences, and I would find some of them hard to believe if they didn't chime so well with what I have heard from my friends.
One of the hardest things to hear is the indifference and coldness many women receive from medical professionals. Women recount not being given any kind of aftercare or counselling, and hearing their baby described as a “product” or “contents”.
In response to the new study, my friend Emma described her experience in a recent Facebook post:
I have nothing but respect for the men and women who looked after me during my ectopic pregnancy, subsequent emergency surgery, and then miscarriage. I know our nurses and doctors are insanely busy and overloaded and it's difficult to establish an emotional connection to every patient you see — let alone find sympathy for something you see literally every day and know is a) common and b) inevitable. BUT… These things stick with you. I remember every casual phrase that hurt me — someone did actually try to use the “bundle of cells” line on me — and every action that seemed to imply me and my baby were not a priority. I remember screaming at someone that my baby was dying as blood soaked my leggings, desperate to understand what was happening and how it COULD be happening to me… She handed me a pad and told me to go and sort it out in the loo.
Knowing that my friends have suffered in this way makes me glad that the impact of miscarriage is receiving more widespread coverage, giving women the courage to speak out on public platforms, and hopefully leading to better care.
However, it does seem that some of these attitudes are almost inevitable in a society that has so little respect for unborn life generally. For all the medics who are accused of being cold for dehumanising a much-wanted baby, there are others slammed for using emotive or unscientific language by referring to a baby as a baby when it isn't wanted.
It can seem disrespectful, even heartless, to refer to abortion and miscarriage in the same breath. Indeed, one of the more pernicious tactics of abortion advocates recently is to conflate the two, especially with the push to normalise abortion pills. However, there are some valid points that can, and should, be made.
Just days before the miscarriage study was released, the press was filled with another study — one claiming that the majority of women don't regret their abortions. There are methodological holes to pick in this research, but even at face value, it is hard to reconcile the two studies. Yes, miscarriage is ethically and emotionally very different from elective abortion, but we have to at least ask the question of why one form of pregnancy loss is causing high levels of PTSD, while another apparently has no ill effects at all.
This question is even more pertinent when we consider the physical processes of miscarriage and abortion. Distasteful though it is when abortion advocates try to justify abortion by likening it to miscarriage, it is true that the physical result of taking mifepristone and misoprostol to induce abortion is the same — bleeding, cramping and passing the baby. Some of the most harrowing parts of the accounts from the women who have suffered miscarriage are of passing the baby, often alone at home or in the bathroom.
To take one example, told to the BBC:
Toni and husband Matt, from Leicester, had been told their baby had no heartbeat at 12 weeks, before she miscarried naturally at home in the bathroom.
But she didn't expect to bleed heavily for eight days and then have to go through painful contractions.
“I thought I was going mad,” she says.
“I had no information about what would happen to me or what I could expect to see.”
In the end, something “recognisable and the size of a palm” fell between her legs in the middle of the night.
When she called the hospital the following day, they told her to “bring the pregnancy tissue in and we'll get rid of it”.
“It wasn't 'tissue' to me, it was our baby,” Toni says.
Yet this incredibly traumatic experience is actually advocated by the abortion lobby when they argue for women being given abortion pills to take at home! In this case, the talk is all about going through the abortion in the comfort of one's own home. The contrast in rhetoric couldn't be starker — comfort is the last thing you'd think of when hearing the reports of women unwillingly going through the same psychological process. If abortion advocates are going to argue that a medical abortion is essentially the same as a miscarriage, then they at least have to admit that it is a physically traumatic process to go through.
Some of the emotional fallout is also likely to be the same. Again, we don't want to compare women who choose abortion to those who naturally lose a baby, but there are enough women who are coerced into abortion or who are told that it's the only option for a much-wanted baby with disabilities for similar feelings of grief or loss of control to play a part. That's without even taking into account the compounded trauma caused by the guilt of choosing to take a child's life.
I hope that this study and the general weakening of the taboo of talking about miscarriage will mean that women are better cared for during and after these traumatic experiences. But I fear that society will find it difficult to recognise women's grief and the value of their lost babies while at the same time promoting abortion as a simple, safe procedure to remove an unwanted bundle of cells.
Published with permission from the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children.