Abortion and Pregnancy Loss: A Pro Choice Critique of Pro Choice Language

By Robin


I’m going to start this off by clarifying up front that I am, and always have been and will be, fiercely pro choice. If you’re reading this hoping that my personal tragedies have helped me see the error of my wicked feminist ways, you are on the wrong blog. However, in the wake of both my miscarriage and stillbirth in the past year, I have come to realize that the pro choice movement has a serious language problem that is likely causing us to lose significant numbers of people who might otherwise support reproductive rights.

Just over a year ago, prior to finding out about my first pregnancy, I read Life’s Work, by the incredible Dr. Willie Parker. If you haven’t read him yet, stop and go do that. He talks about this issue more eloquently than I will ever be able to. An abortion provider who has dedicated his life to ensuring that women have access to safe abortions, Dr. Parker discusses his journey through medical school and practice as a black man with deeply held religious values, and how this led him to view abortion rights- being pro choice- through a moral rather than scientific lens. He talks about how he feels it is morally necessary to provide women, especially poor women, women of color, women who are oppressed in intersectional ways, with the same opportunities that men are given to determine the course of their own lives. This stuck with me, and I thought about how many times I had used scientific arguments to debate with people about abortion rights. What good does this do in a world where science increasingly has little power to dissuade people from their strongly held (incorrect) beliefs? (Looking at you, anti-vaxxer, climate change deniers, and Flat Earthers.)

“It’s just a clump of cells.” “It wasn’t viable outside the uterus.” “It’s a fetus, not a baby.” I’ve used these phrases myself, and I’ve used them often. And they’re true. But they’re also not true, at least not when you’re the one experiencing loss of a wanted pregnancy. I have listened to people I like and respect say things like “I was always pro choice until my friend/my sister/I had a baby, and now I just don’t know.” And I didn’t understand how that could be. Then I lost one pregnancy at twelve weeks, when the risk of miscarriage is supposed to be at its lowest. When I was supposed to be able to relax and be excited and start planning for my baby and announce my good news to everyone I knew. And sitting in the ER bleeding through my pad and underwear and pants, passing blood clots the size of my fist, in excruciating physical and emotional pain, it didn’t feel like I was losing a nonviable clump of cells. I was losing my baby. I lost all of the hopes I had for being a mom, I lost the ability to take it for granted that pregnancy is a time of joy and excitement, I lost the ability to smile and nod my head in the future when someone asked “is this your first pregnancy?” I struggled with that for a little while, because of course I still believe that my fetus didn’t have rights that can or should supersede mine. I don’t believe that the heartbeat I heard that changed my whole life and broke my heart into pieces when it stopped means that everyone who finds themselves pregnant should feel the way I felt. But I did feel left out by language that dismissed my loss. And I can see how someone with less strongly held convictions could be pushed away by that.

In my second pregnancy, I was very vocal about the impact my first loss had on my perspectives on pregnancy and reproductive rights. It was a relatively easy pregnancy, but it was also terrible in the way that all pregnancies are terrible. I felt vulnerable every moment of every day. My body kept changing in ways no one tells you to expect. I kept a running list of symptoms that no one tells you about, and told all my friends to seriously reconsider pregnancy if they were on the fence, because even when it’s desperately wanted it fucking sucks. I was fatigued beyond anything I’d ever felt before. I couldn’t eat for three months because of nausea and severe food aversion. I lost weight, I had round ligament pain, I couldn’t sleep. I bought a pregnancy pillow and fought every instinct in my body to force myself to sleep on my left side. I avoided deli meats and ibuprofen and counted kicks and went to so many appointments I lost count. I had to pee constantly, which made my demanding job even harder to manage. My brain got so foggy I made serious mistakes at work, and I had trouble holding up my end of conversations. I was constipated and my whole body was sore and my nose was constantly stuffy and I was coughing all the time. My skin dried out, my feet and ankles swelled so much I had to buy and wear compression socks. My gums bled every single time I brushed my teeth. My hands fell asleep throughout the day due to carpal tunnel syndrome. I constantly worried about childbirth and the permanent changes it could bring to my body, both cosmetic and functional. And I was afraid, the entire time, that something would go wrong. That I would have to see another still, silent sonogram. I hated all of it, and the only thing that got me through it was that I loved and desperately wanted my baby. I told anyone who would listen that no one should have to endure  this unless it was one hundred percent their choice. Because no one should. Pregnancy is not just a thing you go through and then go back to your life unchanged, regardless of whether you go home with a baby that you need to care for.

At 36 weeks exactly (two weeks ago today), I was worried about decreased fetal movement. I went in for a checkup, and there was no heartbeat. My entire world shattered in a way I’m barely beginning to come to terms with. I went through two days of induced labor and finally a C-section, which again, are things no one should have to endure unless it is unequivocally their choice. And I delivered my son. My baby. Who died. Except he wasn’t, legally speaking, a baby. He was a fetus, according to all the hospital records and state forms and funeral home contracts. And while I understand and agree that this is necessary, it’s still a special kind of pain to realize that my baby, who I held and kissed and grieved for and will spend the rest of my life mourning, was not a person.

So the next time you talk to someone about why abortion rights are critical, think about the language that you’re using. There are people who feel that a heartbeat at six weeks means that fetus is a baby, and you’re not going to science them out of that. Talk about how even though my son was viable and desperately wanted, at the end of the day I am a person and he was not, and that even though that is painful it is necessary. Talk about the morality of forcing a woman to endure nine months of her body not truly being her own, and putting herself through pain and the risk of death for a choice someone else made for her. Think about the way you use language, and how deeply it can wound even the people who are on your side, and how quickly it can shut down those who aren’t and make it impossible for them to listen. There is room in this debate for feelings and morality and grief and loss. There is room in the pro choice movement for people who believe that a fetus is a baby. There is room for us to acknowledge the complexity of our arguments. There is room for nuance.