Baby feet

By Jenna Healy

I remember hearing the news that someone I knew was six weeks pregnant. The eyes of the person next to me widened seriously. “That’s very early to be telling people, isn’t it?” she said gravely and quietly.

I didn’t know then, as I know now, that the social norm is to announce your pregnancy at twelve weeks, once you’ve passed the danger zone; when your chances of a viable pregnancy increase significantly. Because you wouldn’t want to tell people just in case something happens.

It’s not the timing of the convention that shocked me then or upsets me now, but the rationale behind it. It suggests that any pregnancy that doesn’t make it to the twelve-week mark should be silently swept under the rug. And this attitude is very real and very much in practice. Early miscarriages somehow seem not to ‘count’, and women who experience loss are expected to cope in silence.

Even after the first trimester, pregnancy loss is something our society doesn’t want to talk about. Frequently, in the media and through conversation, we hear stories of mothers and fathers treated coldly or carelessly by healthcare staff. Midwives and nurses make suggestions either that it’s best to have another one quickly, or it’s best to leave it a while before trying again. ‘Another one’, ‘trying again’ as if pregnancies and babies are interchangeable, replaceable. When is the emotionally correct time to reset a uterus for conception?

The most upsetting part of this refusal to treat pregnancy loss with the dignity it deserves is that it happens in the setting of a nation whose constitution protects the ‘right to life of the unborn’ as being equal to the ‘right to life of the mother’, in a society that unquestioningly clings to this last vestige of inherited Catholic morality: that life begins at conception, and that from that moment on a fertilised egg has an inviolable right to life that absolutely cannot be taken from it. It must be defended at all costs. We must force a woman to remain pregnant regardless of her will, her health, her circumstances or abilities. Regardless, even, of the health of the foetus itself. Life, after all, is precious and must be cherished.

Unless you have a miscarriage. A miscarriage is natural and to be accepted. Something that was meant to happen, a baby that wasn’t meant to be born. So don’t mourn, don’t cry, don’t take time off work, don’t give the baby a name, and definitely do not talk about it.

It seems, and I believe it strongly, that for those opposed to repeal and opposed to choice, the issue is not about life but about control – a subservience and a sacrifice of free will. Whether a pregnancy reaches term or not is not for us to decide, but for something greater than us, call it what you will: god, fate, patriarchy or Ronan Mullen. We have to accept what we are given. If it was about life from the moment of conception, then not only would our society protect unborn babies, but we would grieve openly for them when they are lost.

And I’ve had it turned around on me. How can I support free, safe, legal abortion and yet claim to have empathy for those who suffer loss? I have a different definition of life. For me, life does not begin at conception. Something particular happens at conception: it transforms the sperm and the egg into something new and is one part in a fascinating process. But a zygote is no more alive than a sperm cell or an egg cell, nor less alive than an embryo or foetus. I believe that it is easy, and simple, to suggest there is something particularly special about conception. I believe it’s an easy idea to inherit and repeat without challenging. And I believe it has a great deal to do with centuries of theology and pre-Christian philosophy that views women as receptacles for male creative power.

Instead, I believe life begins and grows in our hearts. When I say heart, I don’t mean the muscle responsible for pumping blood through the body, the mechanism that starts to beat in a five-week old embryo the size of a sesame seed. But that concept we hold in our society of the seat of our individual emotions, memories, hopes and fears. The part of us that leaps for joy and aches with sadness, that bonds with others in moments in love and compassion.

For some, life begins when they see the positive result on the pregnancy test. For some, it may be before that, or after. Many women grieve periods they hoped wouldn’t come. Others don’t connect with the growing life inside them until the nausea sets in, or they hear a heartbeat. It’s different for everyone. Some women don’t want to be pregnant, and that’s okay. These women should not be forced to grieve if they choose to terminate. Other women do want to be pregnant, but they experience loss, or they may choose to terminate for unforeseen reasons. And these women, who have let life grow in their hearts and minds, should be allowed to grieve regardless of their circumstances.