In her heartbreaking New York Times op-ed on Wednesday, Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, revealed that during a year of profound national and global trauma, she had suffered a miscarriage. “In the pain of our loss, my husband and I discovered that in a room of 100 women, 10 to 20 of them will have suffered a miscarriage,” she wrote. “Yet despite the staggering commonality of this pain, the conversation remains taboo, riddled with (unwarranted) shame, and perpetuating a cycle of solitary mourning.”
These public stories of a private, painful pregnancy outcome are no doubt helping to undermine the lingering stigma and shame of pregnancy and infant loss.
Last month, in an essay on Medium published about a month after the death of her son, Jack, Chrissy Teigen addressed those who condemned her for sharing intimate photos of her pregnancy loss experience, writing, “I lived it, I chose to do it, and more than anything, these photos aren’t for anyone but the people who have lived this or are curious enough to wonder what something like this is like.”
These public stories of a private, painful pregnancy outcome are no doubt helping to undermine the lingering stigma and shame of pregnancy and infant loss. When a majority of Americans still believe in the myths of miscarriage — from the commonality to the cause — speaking openly and authentically about these experiences continues to educate the public about reproduction in general and pregnancy loss specifically. This is especially true for those with immense platforms and cultural currency.
But the shame women (and men) still feel about miscarriages is buoyed by something stronger, and more nefarious, than ignorance. Until we address and work to combat abortion stigma, we’ll never be able to stop judging those who were not physically able to carry a wanted pregnancy to term.
As someone who has experienced both abortion and miscarriage (as well as two live births), I have seen the ways in which abortion stigma and the stigma of pregnancy loss run parallel to and often feed off of each other. There are several different reasons for this, but one big one is tied to the cultural and societal pressure put on women to reproduce. When our bodies do not carry a pregnancy to term, this pressure can transform into blame.
Over six years ago, I lost one twin at 19 weeks' gestation only to give birth weeks later to my other son, who survived. In that moment, though, joy was tempered by guilt. I felt as if my body was innately flawed. Something must have been wrong with me for my body to only carry one fetus to term, instead of two. Did it know what I didn’t want to admit to myself — that I wasn’t equipped to be a mom of twins?
Similar beliefs sustain the stigma and judgment of abortion. If someone with a uterus does not want to stay pregnant or become pregnant in the first place, something "must" be wrong with them. That is certainly what many so-called Christian friends thought when I shared my abortion story publicly. I was called a murderer and a sinner, my abortion contradicting my own God-given anatomical purpose. In reality, I was not broken in body, but in spirit.
This antiquated, sexist belief that all women are meant to — and should want to — reproduce isn’t the only thing fueling both abortion and miscarriage stigma, however. We also need to rid ourselves of the idea that speaking out about bodily functions or sexual health is somehow impolite, selfish or dramatic. This is the same kind of reasoning that has been used to oppress and silence other minorities (notably people in the LGBTQ communities) for decades. Telling people they can’t be open about their experiences doesn’t benefit anyone — except, perhaps, the patriarchy. More importantly, telling people they can’t talk about miscarriages or abortions makes it even harder to educate society about why and how they occur. And the vicious cycle continues.
We also need to rid ourselves of the idea that speaking out about bodily functions or sexual health is somehow impolite, selfish or dramatic.
When we take control of our own lives — when we tell our own stories and shape our own narratives — we are demonized. We’re selfish for making our own decisions about our own bodies if those decisions make others uncomfortable, and we’re selfish for deciding when, how and why to share our pregnancy outcomes.
This leads us to a larger truth about pregnancy, birth and motherhood in general: As a society, we are wholly uncomfortable with the messiness of it all. People don’t want to hear about the state-manufactured pains of procuring an abortion any more than they want to hear about the bloody outcomes of miscarriage, the women defecating during childbirth or the postpartum bellies that refuse to be exercised away. It’s time to stop attempting to smooth over the messy complexities of reproduction.
As poet and playwright Muriel Rukeyser once said, “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.” Perhaps that is why so many in the world still do not want women to be honest about their pregnancy outcomes.
But women are finally starting to tell the truth, thanks in no small part to women like Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, and Chrissy Teigen. The same can be said of the Black and brown women, as well as the trans men, young people and LGBTQ people who’ve shared their abortion stories knowing full well they’ll be met with judgment, harassment or worse.
Because the truth is we do not walk out of hospitals and birthing centers in our pre-pregnancy jeans. We do not always immediately fall in love with our babies in the haze of postpartum life. Birth isn’t a romantic act dependent on a few graceful pushes. Not every pregnancy ends with a baby. Not every person who gets pregnant wants to be. Life is not a movie. Pregnant people are not a monolith. Bodies are not unblemished.