Pregnancy


I am not an incubator

Listening to the right talk about laws for “fetal rights” and “personhood” makes it sound like a fetus is an independent creature simply living inside of us for a short while because it has no way out until labor. The reality though, is that women are not simply keeping a fetus warm while it inevitably grows into a human. Clearly, otherwise many more women would have c-sections at 24 weeks so they don’t have to be pregnant for 40. Even if a woman goes into premature labor, which is defined as before 37 weeks, doctors try and do everything they can to keep the baby inside for as long as is possible and safe, because it needs our bodies to grow.

From the moment the embryo implants into the uterus, we are quite literally growing every single cell. There’s a reason why embryos only live so long on their own either in labs for in vitro or in a uterus before implantation. It literally needs us to grow, and it’s exhausting. The energy drain that pregnant women feel, especially in the first trimester, is evidence of this. The embryo or fetus is essentially a parasite, one that we want to nourish and will eventually become super cute and take over our hearts, but in the meantime, it’s taking over our bodies. Everything we eat and drink affects it, which is why so many things are legitimately off limits for pregnant women, like many drugs that are otherwise safe for non-pregnant people. The trajectory of an embryo becoming a fully formed baby is not guaranteed. As I discussed before, there are many things that can happen to interrupt or distort its growth (and sometimes nothing specific happens at all), and the result can be miscarriage or stillbirth. We are not simply vessels waiting for a human to inevitably come out. It’s not a landlord-tenant relationship. It is literally part of our bodies.

The battle between the rights of a fetus versus the rights of the mother to her own body are ridiculous.They are one and the same because WE are one and the same. There would be no fetus without the mother. My fetus is a part of me and my body. If I want him to grow into a healthy baby boy, there are certain things I know I should do, like eat healthy and take care of myself. Myself. Me. Same goes for when breastfeeding, helping baby grow with a different part of my body. If we want to say we care about potential children, we logically cannot disregard or go against what’s best for the mother as well.

Scary scenarios

After Donald Trump’s hilariously disastrous performance in the second presidential debate last Sunday, one comment started circulating that I found particularly thought provoking. The tweet read, “Trump won’t drop out. Hey, Republicans, how does it feel to be forced to carry something to term?” At first I actually laughed out loud at the irony, particularly since Mike Pence is being dragged along on this ticket and he has an abysmal, frightening record against women’s rights. But it did get me thinking about what it means to be forced to carry a pregnancy to term against your will, something conservatives actually want to enforce.

If an alien species came to Earth and started implanting its embryos into male and female human abdomens, telling us it needed to leech away our nutrients until it grew into full form, and then would burst open and potentially kill us in the process (think of the movie Alien), we’d automatically be outraged and say what torturous, inhumane, totalitarian behavior that is. We’d say these aliens have no right to control us like that and make decisions for our bodily autonomy. The analogy is clearly ridiculous, but that’s the point. If it were anything else sucking the life out of us, it’d be torture and no one would expect you to respect the rights of the creature over your own. Yet when it’s our own species, it’s somehow acceptable to tell us what we can and can’t do with our bodies. What could come at the end of the pregnancy is more important than what is happening to a pregnant woman’s body now.

Even though I’ve called my future child a parasite and leech, I am incredibly excited to be pregnant and to become a parent. I love this creature inside of me so much already, and I can’t imagine how that love will blossom once he’s born in 8 weeks (approximately). At the same time though, I also cannot fathom what it would feel like to go through this pregnancy NOT wanting the child that would result. Those opposed to abortion, particularly men who cannot understand what pregnancy is like, typically say “it’s only 9 months” as if that’s no big deal. It’s not like it’s 9 months of paying off a debt, or 9 months of having to take a medication every day. This is 24/7. Once you live every single second of every single day for 40 whole weeks feeling sick, exhausted, nauseous, achey, having back pain, not being offered a seat on a crowded bus or train despite said physical discomforts, constantly feeling the urge to pee, not being able to sleep, and who knows what other symptoms many women feel, only when you’ve lived that will you understand that 9 months is no small feat.

I’ve been incredibly lucky that my pregnancy has been relatively complication and symptom free compared to many other women. But even so, if I knew that at the end of this 8 week countdown, the result would be a baby that I could not take care of, a baby that would ruin my future, my finances, my relationships, my career, my body, etc, I can only imagine how horrifying these last 7 months would have been. I’m already overwhelmed with all the things I need to prepare for and all the changes that will come, and that’s me WANTING to be a parent. Adoption is an easy out, some say, forgetting how hard the pregnancy actually is, and how hard it can be to part with this child you’ve grown inside of you, no matter how much you know in your head that it’s the right decision.

Luckily, I also became pregnant by my husband in a loving, consensual manner. Had I been raped, I cannot fathom the thought of knowing that these extreme bodily changes were the result of someone violating me. To feel every kick and movement inside of me as a reminder that I was raped, that at one point someone else was inside me against my will, would be incredibly re-traumatizing. Especially considering this baby moves at least 100 times a day. 100 times a day remembering why I’m in this state, who did this to me, and why I have to have my life and body completely altered as a result. Or perhaps you’re still with the abusive partner, and knowing that you’ll have a child together means you know he’ll have more power over you, more control over the family. Even if you break up or divorce, that connection will forever be there even if you have sole custody.

Trying to imagine that this is something that the right wing wants to force on women (to say nothing of the pains of actual labor and birth), is disgusting to me. Some women may be able to turn a tragedy or mistake into a beautiful situation, but that’s their choice, a choice that cannot be forced on anyone. To say that they want to force such extreme physical and emotional actions on a woman because they care about “life” is just absurd, especially when they simultaneously are opposed to universal healthcare for children, welfare for families with children, gun control, and many other life saving programs. It’s a sadistic pleasure in watching women suffer who’ve done something wrong, who’ve acted out of line, who’ve had the audacity to have bodily autonomy and do something like have sex outside of marriage (also ignoring how many married women opt for abortions). This is the true desire to force a woman to carry a pregnancy to term: to control.

Final thoughts

This was all I had to say on the topic at the moment, but I’m sure more will come to me as pregnancy and motherhood progress. We shall see. I’d like to see some light at the end of this tunnel, for all states to have equal protections for pregnant women and equal access to reproductive rights. Only time will tell, and until then, I’ll continue to fight and speak out wherever I can.

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Stances on abortion and women’s healthcare are more than just differing opinions. Either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump WILL become our next president, and that president will appoint not just Scalia’s open Supreme Court seat, but potentially 3 others who will retire during the next term. There are also many federal judge seats that Congress will have to approve, and since most abortion restrictions and fetal personhood laws are made and challenged at the state level, these are also incredibly important. Having a president who doesn’t respect women, doesn’t respect the right to choose, doesn’t believe that women’s healthcare is an issue, and does believe that women should be punished for their decisions about their own bodies is NOT the kind of leader we need. It is the kind of leader we will get if enough people decide to stay home or vote 3rd party on election day though.

The consequences

There’s more than just rhetoric about whether abortion is right or wrong, evil or acceptable, sad but necessary or the downfall of society. For half of the population who are potentially affected by pregnancy, this isn’t simply a debate of competing philosophical ideas. These ideas have some so enraged, ideas like women actually having agency over their own bodies and being able to make their own decisions, that the right is enacting laws to not only restrict but to criminalize those decisions. Ridiculous restrictions like waiting periods treat women like children who just need to go home and calm down and think rationally about their choice (because obviously there’s only one rational decision that every woman should make). Unrealistic and unnecessary requirements like admitting privileges are closing many clinics and making access to abortion an undue burden. Luckily, the Supreme Court agrees, like the recent case in Texas showed, but even that ruling came too late for many shuttered clinics, and many other states are still battling the same issue. 

Even if you don’t choose abortion, simply being pregnant is a legal risk nowadays. “Fetal personhood” laws treat a part of my body as if it’s a separate entity with separate rights to the rest of me. It’s like if a lawyer were to advocate for the kidney I wanted to donate. This happened to Alicia Beltran when she was arrested for a drug addiction she had before she got pregnant. Her fetus had legal representation at the hearing and she was forced into rehab, but she was denied counsel. 

This is becoming more and more of a concern and fear for pregnant women. 38 states have feticide laws, meant to protect a pregnant woman from abusive partners and dangerous, unlicensed abortion providers, but they have begun to backfire on the pregnant women themselves. Those laws in 23 states even apply to the very early stages of pregnancy.

One terrifying example is Purvi Patel, a 33-year-old woman in Indiana who was convicted early last year and sentenced to 20 years in prison for having a stillbirth. Recently, the conviction was overturned, but not before a lengthy legal battle and a scary precedent to use feticide laws against a pregnant woman.

Also take the case of Bei Bei Shuai, another Indiana resident who was charged with feticide.  She became depressed during her pregnancy after her boyfriend abandoned her and refused to help raise the child. She attempted suicide by taking rat poison. At the hospital, doctors were able to save her but not the fetus, and she was arrested.

There are countless other stories of pregnant women’s civil rights being taken away. Some examples from this NY Times piece

“Based on the belief that he had an obligation to give a fetus a chance for life, a judge in Washington, D.C., ordered a critically ill 27-year-old woman who was 26 weeks pregnant to undergo a cesarean section, which he understood might kill her. Neither the woman nor her baby survived.

In Utah, a woman gave birth to twins; one was stillborn. Health care providers believed that the stillbirth was the result of the woman’s decision to delay having a cesarean. She was arrested on charges of fetal homicide.” -Lynn M Paltrow and Jeannie Flavin

Pregnancy dystopia

My high school English class read Aldous Huxley’s A Brave New World, and afterwards we had to write our own short story dystopia as an assignment. I remember that I wrote one in which pregnant women were locked up for the entire 9 months on strict diets and daily regimes, separated from the dangerous outside world but also from their lives and loved ones. These pregnancy prisons were billed to the public as spas meant to protect and pamper women and their fetuses, but the reality was that the women were captives with no rights of their own. Many lost their jobs upon re-entering the world (something that is not uncommon with just regular maternity leave, if one is even offered by the employer). Pregnant women were punished for breaking the rules, causing stress to mother and fetus that those running the centers clearly didn’t care about. Many women tried to break out or commit suicide. Outside, women tried to hide their pregnancies for as long as possible before the police came and hauled them away. The emotional disregard for these women resulted in poor physical health and severe mental problems, as well as many medical complications and deaths of the babies, for which the women were of course blamed.

This came from the mind of an imaginative 14-year-old, but it’s really not that far fetched. Pregnant women are already so criticized, when does that criticism cross over into being controlling? When pregnant women can’t even be trusted to take care of themselves and their fetus, when does the state just take over? We already see cases where pregnant women who admit to taking even safe drugs are arrested if their babies are completely healthy.  Women are strapped down and forced to have c-sections against their will. Child protective services can be called and the child taken away if a laboring woman doesn’t agree to a c-section in some cases. 

These abuses of our civil rights are done in the name of saving babies, except it doesn’t actually happen that way. For example, 32% of women in the US undergo a c-section, and some specific hospitals have even higher rates. Most are allegedly for medical emergencies, and have in fact been a great medical advance that have saved countless mothers and babies. But studies show that a c-section rate of up to 19% is optimal, but the US’s rate has increased 50% in the last 15 years. An entire third of births do not require them. “Better safe than sorry,” some say, “doctors just have the best interest of mother and baby in mind.” If that were so, you’d think that we’d be really good saving the lives of mothers and babies, when in fact the US has one of the highest infant and maternal mortality rates of any developed country.  A lot of this has to do with insurance and liability, doctors trying to cover their asses in case something were to happen, at least they can say “well we tried something.It cannot be denied that ripping open a woman’s body solely for convenience and saving face is an utterly dehumanizing disregard for these patients’ well beings.

Solutions

I can certainly commend the theory of trying to enact laws to protect pregnant women, especially since murder is the number one cause of death among pregnant women. Not the number one non-medical cause of death or non-pregnancy related death. Number one. Period. Statistically, I am more likely to be killed by my husband than I am to die of preeclampsia or childbirth. The way to help though is not to give rights to a fetus and treat it like a separate, autonomous being, but to make pregnant women themselves a protected class, so that crimes against them are treated more seriously and prosecuted more severely. When an abusive partner comes after a pregnant women, he’s not trying to hurt the fetus and leave his partner out of harm’s way. He’s angry at her and wants to hurt her, but all right wing lawmakers seem to care about is the fetus inside of her. The laws should reflect the crime, that of trying to hurt the pregnant woman. That way, pregnant women themselves aren’t faced with prosecution.

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.