July 2016


Let’s talk miscarriages

There are a number of reasons why miscarriages are unfortunately not discussed more in our society. Many women who have one feel as if it’s too personal to discuss and simply prefer to keep such sensitive, medical information private. Some are very distraught over the loss, and talking about it makes it all the more painful. They may feel like their bodies betrayed them, that the one thing they were evolutionarily meant to do, they failed at, and they feel guilty for what happened. No matter how many times they tell themselves that it’s natural and happens all the time, there are times when no amount of logic can overcome such feelings.

Miscarriages are indeed quite common. Studies show that up to 70% of all fertilized eggs will miscarry, although most of those occur before a woman even knows she’s pregnant. Most often it’s a chromosomal abnormality that wouldn’t produce a viable human anyways. The biggest risk is in the first trimester; the earlier the pregnancy, the higher the risk. As I outlined in Part 1: Biology, there are many steps to get from ovulation to baby, and any hiccup along the way can easily derail the process. This is one reason most women choose not to announce their pregnancies until the 2nd trimester. By then, the odds of miscarriage have gone down to acceptable levels and the fetus is developed enough to test for abnormalities. These tests are typically done around weeks 11-13, and then results will take a week or so to come back.

Miscarriage affects every woman differently. Many don’t even know it happened. Some are relieved, some are devastated, some are upset by the inconvenience of having to wait to try and conceive again. These are all perfectly normal and acceptable reactions to have. It depends on whether the woman has been trying to conceive and for how long, how far along the pregnancy was, and generally what the woman’s personality is. That’s part of a woman’s right to choose, to choose how and even if she grieves over her miscarriage.

The pro-life movement is not opposed to miscarriage. That would be not only ridiculous from a numbers perspective but inhumane as well. Most miscarriages are unavoidable, just nature’s way of saying “Sorry, this isn’t a good one after all.” They won’t condemn a woman whose body naturally aborts an embryo or fetus in the first trimester, but they will condemn women who choose for themselves to abort in the exact same time frame. So it seems as though the act in and of itself isn’t objectionable, but women making decisions for themselves are.

For those who do choose to grieve their miscarriage, that alone is hard enough. But to make matters worse, we’re constantly being told that women who lost their pregnancies at the same stage due to choosing abortion are evil criminals, destroying the fabric of society, that innocent babies are being killed, but their loss was ok simply because it was “natural.” Loss is loss. Whether it was an intentional loss or not, it is entirely hypocritical to have a different set of standards for the exact same function simply due to the mechanics of how it happened. If an embryo truly is life no matter what, then its loss should be treated the same no matter how it happened. Which means condemning a natural process, making women who miscarry feel even worse, feel like their bodies betrayed them, and feel even more guilty than they already do. Is that what we really want?

Do’s and Don’t’s

There’s already enough guilt thrown at pregnant women from the day they get that positive test. Once pregnant, there’s a laundry list of things that you suddenly cannot do and things you cannot eat or drink. If you do, you’re told, you’re putting your child directly at risk and you could be a murderer. That cup of coffee you so badly want? A ham sandwich? Don’t even think about seafood. Don’t overexert yourself. Make sure you get enough sleep or else. No pressure.

Most of these warnings come from the interpretation of one study from years ago that shows a slight correlation (not causation) between these things and miscarriage or deformity of the fetus. Emily Oster outlined many of these fantastically in her book Expecting Better: Why Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom is Wrong – And What You Really Need to Know. For example, there is a correlation between women who drink a lot of caffeine (and I mean like, 5+ cups a day) and early miscarriage. However, many women don’t have the stomach for coffee and caffeinated drinks in their 1st trimester because of morning sickness. While the purpose of morning sickness is still relatively an evolutionary mystery (or just a huge joke by Mother Nature), it is agreed that morning sickness is a sign of a healthy pregnancy and lower rates of miscarriage in general. Therefore, those who aren’t sick already have a higher incidence of miscarriage, and the fact that they happen to be able to stomach coffee may have nothing to do with it at all.

Instead of telling pregnant women this though, there is often a blanket ban of coffee for the entire pregnancy. Not just the 1st trimester when the correlation with miscarriage is actually observed, but all 9 months. Just in case. And if you think that’s ridiculous, you’re asked, “Is it worth the risk? Is that cup of coffee really worth the life of your child?” Of course not, that’s preposterous, but it’s a goddamn cup of coffee, not a heroin injection.

You don’t even have to be pregnant to be guilted into caring about your theoretical unborn child. The CDC recently came out with a warning against drinking any alcohol if you’re not using birth control. Because you could become pregnant, you should always act as if you are, just in case. (And let’s be real, if serious fetal abnormalities were caused every time alcohol was involved in baby making, we’d be A LOT worse off as a species.) Even as evidence condemning light drinking during actual pregnancy is coming under more and more scrutiny, women are constantly being told that “no amount of alcohol has been proven to be safe.” Women are asked, “Do you really NEED that drink?” As if only an insatiable lush would want a glass of wine with at their anniversary dinner, or their friend’s wedding, or even just after a hard day. No amount of Tylonel has been proven safe for pregnancy either using the standards for scientific proof, but doctors recommend it for pregnant women as a safe pain reliever.

It’s easy to see the guilt women face when a miscarriage does happen. Maybe it was that beer I had before I knew I was pregnant. Maybe it was that heavy box I lifted. Maybe it was the stress of worrying about all the things I could do wrong.

Equating abortion to the death of a baby makes little sense biologically but also makes women who miscarry feel unnecessarily shamed. The misinformation and scare tactics only cause undue stress and don’t actually inform us of what real risks are. If we really want to cherish pregnancy and giving birth, then we need to cherish the women who do so and help make their lives easier, comfortable, and guilt free. 

I’ve been writing this piece for a long time now, ever since I knew I was pregnant back in March. I started taking mental notes about my thoughts on reproductive rights and how they’ve solidified, and then realized I couldn’t keep those thoughts to myself. Things have changed as my pregnancy has progressed over the months, but every change has made my conviction on the topic all the stronger. Not just changes within my body and with my pregnancy, but external changes, such as the new political world we live in.

I wrote what looked like an entire essay, and realized it might be more meaningful (and less time consuming to readers) to break it up into smaller pieces. I was trying to keep them solely about biology and my pregnancy, but the topic really can’t be discussed without mentioning all the political turmoil women face. Many scary scenarios already exist for pregnant women, and they will only become worse if a sexist egomaniac and pro-life wing nut become our next President and VP. As many activists and feminists have said before me, the personal IS political.

Some may think that being pregnant would change how I feel about abortion. Now that I’m growing a life inside me, I’d realize how precious all life is, how I could never abort my own child, and thus why no one should ever be able to have an abortion. Instead, I’ve realized with even more clarity how stupid the whole “life begins at conception” argument truly is. It’s just rhetoric that people blindly repeat while ignoring actual science and human biology. Not only does this make sane or productive conversation about reproductive rights impossible, but women are increasingly becoming targets for prosecution for simple tragedies.

How it all works

One main reason why this rhetoric is so absurd is because of how many fertilized eggs never become breathing babies. While TV shows like Teen Mom may make it seem like getting pregnant is not only easy, but really hard to avoid, there’s a huge variance when it comes to fertility. Plenty of women conceive accidentally, and everyone has that one friend of a friend who got pregnant even while on birth control. But for many other women (many more than most people are aware of), getting pregnant is not that easy and can cause great amounts of stress and grief with each passing month. Even for those who don’t have to try for years, conceiving is quite an exact process where every condition has to be just right.

Since high school biology was quite a while ago for many of us, let’s have a brief review of the steps from ovulation to baby:

 

  • Ovaries release an egg a couple of weeks after your period. When exactly, you don’t really know, unless you spend a lot of time and money on ovulation kits and are lucky enough to have a regular cycle.
  • Have sex at JUST the right time. This is usually only a window of a few days, and it’s best if it’s right before ovulation. Which as pointed out in #1, is hard to know.
  • Hope that neither the egg nor sperm that meet are defective and fertilization actually happens. **This is the stage at which pro-lifers think it’s a human being with equal rights as the rest of us**
  • Fertilized egg begins to divide and travel down the fallopian tube into the uterus. Hope nothing happens along the way.
  • If you’re lucky, the dividing cells will implant into your uterine wall.
  • If you’re luckier still, it’ll stay implanted another week or so until you have enough of the pregnancy hormone to get a positive pregnancy test.
  • If you’re really lucky, the embryo will continue to grow in your uterus and you won’t have a miscarriage.
  • The MOST lucky you could be, is to then have the fetus develop normally, with no physical complications to your body like preeclampsia, and no dangers to the fetus like previa or the umbilical cord around its neck.
  • Labor comes, and hopefully you and baby don’t suffer too much physical distress, hemorrhaging, or other complications that could endanger both of your lives.
  • Ta da! Baby! That wasn’t so hard, was it?

 

Science!

One argument about an embryo being a human being is that it’s “human life.” Yes, so is every single cell in my body that contains my DNA. Are embryos different because of what they can become? I think not, they’re just stem cells, with the capacity to become whatever they’re told to become. There are also stem cells in my bone marrow and liver. Am I a murderer if I break a bone or have too much to drink?

Embryo1

Some may look at picture of the embryo above and say, “But see! It LOOKS like a little human baby! There’s the head and the start of the little arms and legs…” It does have the basics of the human form, and we all know about the residual tail that disappears later in development. However, that’s not a human. It’s an elephant.

If you go back far enough, we’re all similar. Embryos

Most animals have a head, eyes, and 4 limbs. We even used to have a tail, which is why we have one in early development. The closer related we are on the evolutionary tree, the more we look alike. Even the dolphin embryo below looks human, and they’re not even land mammals. So what’s so precious about human embryos?Dolphin.jpg

Some would say they’re special because they become humans. But the point is, they’re not yet. If I told you I had a cake for you, and came out with a bag of flour, sugar, and some eggs, you’d be upset. That’s not a cake. Not yet.

Here’s a thought experiment

Imagine your house is on fire. At one end of the house, you have a freezer with 10 frozen human embryos. At the complete other end of the house, a 1 year old child is sleeping. You’re standing right in the middle. You only have enough time to save the freezer or the baby before the house collapses and you all die. Which do you choose? You’d be pretty heartless to say that you’d let a child die in order to save 10 potential children, and that’s the entire point.

For all the rhetoric about in vitro or stem cell research being baby killing, no one mourns over these events, no one sheds a tear over the loss of embryos. I’ve been to abortion clinics to escort women safely to and from the entrance. I’ve seen the protesters with their prayer books, some with their anger. They’re not crying. They either hate the women who walk through those doors or they pity them, but they don’t feel pain for the alleged loss of life. Not in the way that your heart wrenches after reading stories about a mother who killed 8 of her newborns and buried them in the backyard. They don’t feel the kind of disgust as they do for the man who sexually abused and then killed his 3-week old daughter. Nor should they. These stories elicit visceral reactions from us when heinous crimes actually happen, and it’s telling that these same feelings don’t surface when people talk about abortion. The feelings that emerge are those of anger and pity, because we all know deep down that it’s not the same.

If we want to talk about sanctity of human life, let’s talk about providing healthcare for everyone, controlling guns and violence, eliminating the death penalty, ensuring children everywhere have enough food to eat, or things that save actual lives, not just stem cells.

Up next: Let’s talk miscarriages.