In a recent post, I talked about the two “abortions” that are part of my personal fertility story. It was written in the heat of my emotion over the “pro-life” death of an Irish woman. As such, I did not make my point as carefully or precisely as I should have.
Specifically, I wrote that “although I was in graduate school for Christian theology and ethics at the time, none of my friends or colleagues — not even the Catholics among them — offered to plan a memorial service for my dead baby. (In fact, they didn’t so much as send a card.)” This makes it sound as if no one at all acknowledged my loss, which is not the case. My family members were as sad as I was, and there were friends from both school and church who visited me in the hospital and/or sent condolences. One dear friend even brought over a casserole. I regret very much the insensitivity of my words.
Here is the point I was trying to make: No one offered to plan memorial services for my dead babies BECAUSE EVERYONE KNEW THEY WEREN’T BABIES. They were the beginnings of babies, the hopes of babies, but not yet babies. And had I behaved as if I had lost a baby – had I sent out a campus-wide email (“It is with deep sadness that we inform you…”) or invited people to a funeral – people would have thought I was over-reacting. A failed pregnancy can be a terrible loss, but it is simply not the same as losing a beloved person. Can you imagine if, upon meeting a stranger who inquired about my family, I said something like, “Well, I had three children but two of them died”? People I know have delivered fully-formed stillborns, with names and birthdays. A friend had a baby whose heart stopped at ten days old. A neighbor had a six-year old son who died suddenly of an infection. A distant relative died in a crash at age twenty-one. What I lost in my ectopic pregnancy and my miscarriage were simply not the emotional or moral equivalent of what these parents lost. And everybody – even the most pro-life Catholic or Evangelical on the planet – knows it. And I know they know it, because no one treats me like the mother of two dead children.
Nor do I expect to be treated as such! I have found comfort during my struggles in a very unlikely place – Adam Smith. In his early work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, he argued that (among other things) it is incumbent upon those who grieve to cut their grief down to manageable size in order to allow others to imagine it and sympathize. To paraphrase, someone experiencing a failed pregnancy must “lower her passion to that pitch, in which the spectators are capable of going along with her”; if she doesn’t, she may be shunned as hysterical or viewed as otherwise indecent. (Think Mary Todd Lincoln.) A willingness to meet the limits of others’ sympathies is a necessity if one hopes to be understood, agreed with, and approved of. But a positive side-benefit of imagining how one’s grief will sound or look to others is that, over time, one begins to get a little bit of distance from it and put it into perspective.
There are countless women out there who have experienced failed pregnancies, and I do not speak for all of them. But in my own experience, miscarriage revealed the very important differences between first-trimester embryos and babies or grown children. All but the most radical religious people intuitively know this to be the case, otherwise they would treat miscarriages the same way they treat the deaths of other people. It is simply disingenuous to go on pretending that they can’t see the distinctions.