“What makes a mother real?” asks writer and performer Alice Eve Cohen in her newly-published play, What I Thought I Knew. In 1999, Cohen experienced the most improbably and bizarrely complicated pregnancy imaginable. Her play is a crystallization of her stranger-than-fiction pregnancy memoir that was acclaimed at its 2009 publication with book-of-the-year awards from Salon to Oprah. Cohen’s saga touches on an amazing range of twentieth-century reproductive history and politics, from the birth defects caused by the drug diethylstilbestrol (DES) prescribed to pregnant women in the 1950s, to surgical approaches to intersex, to “wrongful life” litigation. Through it all, she never lets her audience rest on their assumptions about motherhood…
The Indiana legislature claims it wants to protect unborn children and their parents. Last week Governor Mike Pence gave his blessing to a new bill aimed primarily at restricting abortion but also addressing miscarriage, explaining, “I sign this legislation with a prayer that God would continue to bless these precious children, mothers and families.” But knowing what I do about pregnancy and miscarriage, all I can see is increased pain and confusion in store for women who lose pregnancies in Indiana…
When I criticized Hobby Lobby for its attempts to evade the Obamacare contraceptive mandate, a friend of mine thoughtfully replied, “Lara, I don’t think the Hobby Lobby case has anything to do with the daily birth control pill — it is only dealing with not wanting to cover drugs and medical devices that actually “end” a pregnancy after an egg has been fertilized.” She wasn’t so ready to vilify Hobby Lobby for standing on its anti-abortion principles, a position which a substantial minority of Americans support.
Like my friend, I am willing to grant that Hobby Lobby may earnestly be trying to avoid funding what it perceives to be “abortions.” But what this discussion shows is that Hobby Lobby, and many people on both sides of the abortion debates, have been misled about how pregnancy works. And this has profound implications for how we think about contraceptives such as the IUD and the morning-after pill…
Miscarriage rarely makes the news, except in tabloids. But last year, Virginia state Senator Mark Obenshain’s ill-advised attempt to require Virginia women to report all miscarriages to the police contributed to his failure to become Virginia’s state attorney general. The bill, introduced in 2009, haunted his race for the position.
Obenshain was trying to demonstrate his moral outrage over the case of a frightened teenager who had given birth to a premature stillborn baby, and disposed of it in a dumpster. It was a tragic case, to all observers. But instead of asking how his state could better provide sex education and contraception, or provide support to teens who get pregnant, he wrote a bill aimed at surveillance and punishment. On penalty of up to a year in prison, women would be required to report all incidences of fetal demise occurring outside a physician’s supervision to the police. They were to report the pregnant woman’s name and the location of the remains, and would not be allowed to dispose of them without police supervision.
This would be an alarming proposal even if miscarriage were a rare occurrence. It smacks of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, or eighteenth century English laws, under which a woman was presumed to have committed infanticide if she had an unattended stillbirth.
But miscarriage is not rare. About 20% of confirmed pregnancies miscarry. And that is only the tip of the iceberg. Only about a third of fertilized eggs actually become babies; the rest fail to implant in the uterus, or begin to develop but are not genetically compatible with life, or stop developing for reasons still mysterious to researchers.
Obenshein’s bill was promptly ridiculed. Obenshein was forced to reach out to Planned Parenthood to try to fix his gaffe, and was rebuffed; in the end, he himself withdrew the bill.
What remains interesting to me, as the episode resurfaced in the news, is how exactly Obenshein was taken to task. I see two major threads. One, in a subtle way, reinforces Obenshein’s perspective. The other is perhaps more counter-cultural.
Some of Obenshein’s critics emphasized the emotional burden the reporting requirement would place on women who are presumed to already be mourning a grave loss. It is true that today in the United States, many women experience miscarriages, even very early ones, as akin to losing a child. Even Obenshein’s supporters surely were aghast at the idea of emotionally torturing women who were devastated to lose their pregnancies.
The more counter-cultural perspective is that, as obstetrician Carrie Terrell has explained, miscarriage is “a completely normal and natural event. It would be sort of like having to report every time you had intercourse or your period. It’s a normal part of a woman’s reproductive life.” If we wanted to be sure to report every single miscarriage, we’d need to report every single menstrual period as a possible miscarriage. Many of those early losses look exactly like regular periods. None of us who have been heterosexually active, fertile women in fact know how many early pregnancy losses we have had.
I would like to see both of these perspectives taken into account, not only in preventing ridiculous laws like that proposed by Obenshain, but in understanding miscarriage more generally. Many women today need emotional support and understanding when they lose pregnancies, and they deserve that support. At the same time, it could help us a great deal to learn to regard miscarriage as common, natural, and normal. Miscarriages are a regular part of a healthy women’s reproductive life, just like intercourse, menstruation and pregnancies that go to term.