Despite religious sensibilities, a lot of mealy mouthed to-ing and fro-ing about when life begins, and emotional protestations about foetal development, it is already perfectly clear that no one, not even the most passionate and evangelical right-to-lifer, really believes that a foetus is the moral and emotional equivalent of a baby.
How can I say such a thing? Well, like many women of my age and era, I have had a fairly typical reproductive history. It includes one abortion, one miscarriage and two live births. But it is not the abortion I want to talk about here, despite the title of this piece. (Suffice to say, I regretted the unwanted pregnancy – a condom tore – and felt mainly relief once I was pregnant no longer.) No, I want to unpack the contrast between the way society reacted to my miscarriage and my new born baby who nearly died.
Miscarriages are extremely common. According to the Women’s Health website (link here):
It is possible that as many as 50 per cent of pregnancies miscarry before implantation in the womb occurs. Early after implantation, pregnancy loss rate is about 30 per cent (ie. this is still before a pregnancy is clinically recognised). After a pregnancy may be clinically recognised (between days 35?50), about 25 per cent will end in miscarriage.
And for women like me, who very much want to have a baby (as I did at that stage in my life), miscarriages can be very distressing. But how does the world react? Particularly if the miscarriage occurs before eight weeks (the most likely time) – hardly at all. People will make the right noises alright, but it is perfectly obvious they regard it as a minor mishap. Women are exhorted to get over it; that it was probably for the best; that they will soon get pregnant again, have a healthy baby and forget all about their loss.
The medical profession is just as blase and can be downright unfeeling. I remember undergoing an ultrasound after a weekend spent bleeding and weeping in bed, hoping against hope that my baby was still alive, only to have the ultrasound technician ask me abruptly if I was even really sure I had been pregnant at all.
My miscarriage, like my earlier abortion, occurred at a very early stage. Her question left me feeling humiliated as well as bereft. Had I just imagined this phantom pregnancy – despite my doctor confirming my state? Was I just another hysterical woman? I had been so excited by my pregnancy, I had told the world; so I had to tell them about my miscarriage too. Did the world rally round? Was there a fuss, a funeral, was I offered compassionate leave from work? Certainly not.
About a year later, I gave birth to my first daughter. Premature but healthy at first, she developed ‘RSV(positive) bronchiolitis’ and, at a few days old, stopped breathing three times, had to be resuscitated and was given the last available neo-natal paediatric hospital bed in NSW, as officially the sickest baby in the State. Did people rally round? Did the world understand the magnitude of her peril and my grief? You bet they did. From medical specialists to friends, family and mere acquaintances, the warmth and support was tremendous. People understood and accepted the significance of my possible but, fortunately, unrealised loss.
And am I complaining about this? Not really. The depth of my grief was different too. Sure I mourned the miscarried baby, but people were right: once I was pregnant and past the magic 12-week point, the memory of my loss faded. I am sure that the later the miscarriage occurs, the worse the sense of loss – and still-birth is regarded with particular dread and sympathy. But my point remains: the loss of a born baby is a thousand times more traumatic than the loss of an unborn one. We understand the difference between a potential baby and an actual one, and always have.
So why the hysterical fuss about abortion, particularly early term abortions such as those achieved using RU486?
Beneath our blase attitude about miscarriage and our hysteria about abortion is an argument about power and control. It’s not the foetus we care about – indeed the person who cares most about the foetus is probably always its mother, even if she decides to abort. After all, it is the mother and hopefully the father who will shoulder the 20-year-plus responsibility for their child.
This is really an argument about who is allowed to decide whether a baby gets born. The fanatically religious cannot bear the idea of women – who are not only inadequate but also the source of Original Sin and temptation – taking ‘headship’ over a man. The fanatically religious, whether Islamic or Christian, also appear to hate sex. (Salman Rushdie makes just this point about Islamists in a recent interview in the weekly German news magazine Stern.) And, by extension, they also hate women, particularly sexually active women who do not ‘belong’ to a particular man.
Thanks to Fiona Katauskas
Indeed, a report in the Sydney Morning Herald (link here) confirms this hatred of sexually active women. Apparently there are moves afoot to prevent the use of the cervical cancer vaccine that this year’s Australian of the Year Professor Ian Frazer is being lauded for. Despite its potential to save lives, the fanatically religious believe that vaccinating young girls (the best time to do so, apparently) will encourage them to be sexually active.
And then there is the truly appalling policy of the Catholic Church against condoms in Africa, where increasing numbers of virtuous young women who have obeyed all the Church’s moral strictures, are infected with AIDS at the same moment as they loose their virginity: on their wedding night. In their case, the wages of virtue are also death.
What we may in fact be witnessing is a fight for life and relevance by religions themselves. After all, if they don’t retain ultimate control over birth (by battling abortion, contraception and condoms), and death (by battling euthanasia), then what on earth are they for?
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