Thursday, July 09, 2009

The difference between a miscarriage and an abortion

Thanks to a discussion with my uncle on Facebook, I realized I never wrote this post when I was doing my month of reproductive-rights posts. So here it is.

When I was student teaching, the kids were working on biographies of different Hispanic figures. One group was researching Frida Kahlo, and they asked me what the Spanish word for "miscarriage" was. I looked it up, and the dictionary just said "aborto" which, as you can tell, is the word for "abortion." I looked in several other dictionaries, but there was no separate word in Spanish for "miscarriage," which infuriated me.

I know technically, medically speaking, "abortion" refers to "a termination of pregnancy" and that a miscarriage is the termination of a pregnancy, but word have meaning and they have context. A miscarriage is a spontaneous abortion: it happens naturally, without the woman knowing or wishing it. When we speak of "an abortion" we refer to the choice a woman makes to terminate the pregnancy. There should be a separate word in Spanish to show the difference between these two events, because they are entirely different.

Speeding is speeding, right? But don't you agree there is a HUGE difference between someone going 2 miles over the speed limit in a residential area and someone going 20 miles over the speed limit in that same residential area? One is a slip of the foot that will not have any serious effects on your reaction time if you need to stop, the other is a blatant disregard for laws and the safety of the children in that neighborhood.

A miscarriage happens to a woman who has already decided she wants to have that child. To her, it is a child, because she wants it. To her, that is a life, that is her child. To that woman, and to her family, that loss is as great as if that child had already fully formed and come out of the womb.

An abortion is something a woman goes through voluntarily. Not always because she wants to, but she does make the choice to do it and she knows why she's making that choice. It may not be the way she wanted things to be, but it's the best option of the ones offered to her. Most of the time that woman does not consider that fetus inside of her to be a life. She does not want the child, for many reasons and almost never simple ones.

There are times a woman who very much wanted that child must have an abortion, but she still chooses to go through the procedure, because of medical reasons (the details of which I won't go into because I'm not a medical doctor and I won't pretend to talk about things I know nothing about, and I know the list of possible medical complications, for the mother and the fetus, is long). She then makes the choice knowing this is the best thing she can do for her potential child. While I have no personal experience with this myself, this woman does [EDIT: another eloquent post on late-term abortion and what it means]. I think she they says it pretty well. Clicking around a little, I found this post by a woman who does happen to be a medical doctor. If you want to go into the gory details of how pregnancy can kill you, read her post.

But back to my point: when a woman suffers a miscarriage, she has a completely different experience than a woman who chooses to have an abortion. There is no way you can compare the two.

A woman who suffers a miscarriage was pregnant with a wanted child. This is the opposite situation of a woman facing an unwanted pregnancy.

When a woman miscarries, she is a victim of her body. She suffers physical pain as her body bleeds the fetus out of it, and she suffers emotional pain as she mourns the loss of that wanted child. That fetus was a child to her, it was her son or daughter, because she wanted it to be.

When a woman has an abortion, she is taking control of her life. She is taking control of her body, either to terminate an unwanted pregnancy -- a fetus, not a child to her -- or to do what's best for that would-be potential child, because her doctor has informed her the child would not survive anyway.

When you miscarry, you are a victim. Something bad and painful has happened to you.

When you have an abortion, you are acting. You are taking control of your body and your life.

Abortion is a choice. The word itself grants empowerment. This is one of the reasons why we use that word to describe our movement; women are taking control, making their own choices, instead of doing what someone else expects us to do.

You cannot compare a miscarriage to an abortion because of how they happen: you are helpless when a miscarriage decides to happen to you; you are in control of the abortion.

A woman who has had a miscarriage has had something taken from her; a woman who has had an abortion has not lost anything because either she didn't want it to begin with, or she knew she wasn't going to be able to keep it (because of medical complications).

This is why the emotional responses to a miscarriage and to an abortion are also completely different. You cannot compare them.

Now, sadly, there are some women who are pressured, coerced, or forced into having an abortion (by a boyfriend who doesn't want a kid, by parents who don't want the scandal, by the abusive step-father/uncle/teacher who raped her and doesn't want to go to jail, etc.). These women are not making the choice on their own, they are being forced to make the choice by someone else.

These women do suffer a loss. They have control taken from them, and are forced to do something they do not want to do, even if at the time the person forcing her is sweet-talking his way into making her feel that this is what she wants to do. (If you have never been on the receiving end of an abusive relationship, then maybe you don't understand what I'm talking about, but that it hasn't happened to you doesn't mean it doesn't happen.)

These women have an entirely different experience than the woman who miscarries or the woman who chooses an abortion. A woman forced into having an abortion suffers the loss, and feel the guilt, since "she did it" -- even though the didn't, because she was manipulated and forced into making the choice.

When a woman is forced to have sex, we don't call it sex anymore. We call it rape. It becomes something different.

Let's realize that the vast majority of women who have abortions thought their decision through and they suffer no "emotional scarring." Some women are scared, pressured, coerced, or forced into making a decision without thinking it through, and/or without being able to have a frank, honest conversation with someone who knows what she's talking about on this issue. Because the topic is so polarized, because supporting a woman's right to choose is so "taboo," because the issue is clouded by rhetoric and propaganda and the yelling of people who have no business talking about this because they will never, ever have to face the decision themselves, women who need more counseling, women who need a forum where they can talk openly about their unintended and maybe unwanted pregnancy don't really have anywhere to go.

If we were really concerned about these women and their emotional wellbeing, we'd cut all the crap and let doctors, nurses, and trained professionals talk to these women. We'd stop feeding them lies and rhetoric and propaganda, and we'd give them a chance to have open, honest, candid, and medically-accurate discourse on the issue.


  1. An interesting post. I'm a little lost with the logic though. An embryo, fetus, child in utero is either a living human being or it isn't. The desired subjective state of the mother has no relevance at all to the ontological reality of that life.

    If I feel chocolate ice cream isn't really ice cream by subjective feelings have no bearing on the reality of the fact that chocolate ice cream exists. The argument that a fetus is anything other than a human life is a little outdated. Even the most radical members of the prochoice movement have moved passed the ambiguity of whether or not the fetus is actually a living human being.

    I'd agree whole heartedly that a miscarriage and an abortion are two different things. The medical reasons you site i'll look into. Often the medical need to abort for the health of the mother results in the abortion being a side product of the procedure not the major intent and is morally tolerated under the principle of double effect. For example an eptopic pregnancy that will lead to the bursting of the fallopian tubes and the mother's death is treated by removing the embryo obstruction. The primary intent is to repair the normal state of health and save the mother's life. The death of the fetus is merely tolerated.

    In some cases the medical excuse is laughable. In the case of a late term abortion (partial-birth) it makes absolutely no medical or logical sense to stop the delivery of a breech fetus at the neck with the head still in the vaginal canal and stab a hole in the base of the skull. How can that every really be tied to health?

    Be well and good luck with the new job. I find your writing and posts to be very thought provoking after stumbling upon your blog a few weeks ago.

  2. Charlie,
    Thanks for reading!
    This post was kind of a follow-up to a series of posts I wrote in February. I linked (in this post) to the post where I go into when "life" begins, if you want to read a more thorough explanation:

    I disagree that the argument about whether or not the fetus is a human life is outdated. That is the crux of this issue; we have not resolved it because there is no one answer. We disagree, and we will, unfortunately, probably continue to disagree for ages to come. (I move in pretty moderate pro-choice circles, and the people I talk to agree the fetus is not a human life, so I doubt the radical pro-choicers would take that stand, as you imply.)

    As I mentioned above, there are many medical reasons to terminate a pregnancy, ectopic pregnancies being just one of the many. Since I am not a doctor, I'm not going to pretend to be able to discuss the details of these, but that post I linked to is a good starting point (not a comprehensive list I'm sure, but a good starting point).

    I must say that I have never heard of a breeched birth taken care of by aborting. Usually doctors just do a C-section in that case.

    The term "partial-birth" is more of that rhetoric and propaganda. It sounds horrible, which is why the anti-choice side fought to have that wording used. A late-term abortion means it takes place after 30-something weeks, not that it takes place at the time the mother is giving birth. That's the image the anti-choicers want you to have, which is why they coined that gruesome and misleading phrase.

    For some more insight into what a late-term abortion means, please read this post: (which I am adding to the links in my post above).

  3. Charlie-- there are many reasons why a late-term abortion might be necessary. There are severe complications that can come on in late pregnancy that can rob a woman of her life and health if let go unchecked. You may want to check the links on this very issue before ranting about it.

    Criss- Great post. I wonder if part of where people get confused here is how women are affected by their abortions. It seems we think in 2 extremes, that the woman is either crippled with regret for the rest of her life at the horrible!! thing she did, or she moves on never thinking of that pregnancy again. I think we can all agree both of these are somewhat ridiculous (I'm sure they happen for some percentage of women, but certainly don't seem to be the norm). I can't speak from experience, but I imagine many women who go through abortions think about that potential life for a long time afterwards. You even wrote a novel sparked by your experience and the "what ifs?" that came from it. But that doesn't mean these women feel regret, or are hindered by their experience. But it almost feels like they're not allowed to show even the slightest hint of sadness or wonder about their abortion because then it'll come across as "they shouldn't have done it to begin with!!"

  4. BTW I just went and read the 2nd link you posted (about Obama's remarks on late term abortion). Wow. That just changed the way I see late-term abortions. I used to think it was fine to ban them other than when the mother's health is in danger... it seems the situation is often much more complicated than that. That post has humbled me and my opinion. Now more than ever, it seems this whole matter deserves to just be between a woman and her doctor, without all these rules and laws involved.

    So thanks for sharing that.

  5. Marcy- Exactly. This is the one decision women are not allowed to regret. I regret many decision I've made, and I'm allowed to express regret about all of them (my first marriage, my last job, buying a house with only two bedrooms), but I can't even express doubt or sadness about having had an abortion.

    I KNOW I made the right choice. That doesn't mean I can't be sad about it, or wonder what would have happened, etc. This "gag rule" probably causes more grief and "emotional scarring" than the abortion itself. We are not free to talk about our emotions about the abortion, because if we express any doubt we'll be called murderers.

    The reason I didn't talk about my abortion for so long was not because I was ashamed of what I'd done, but because I knew others would condemn me, so I kept it quiet. Didn't talk about it, at first not even when I was on pro-choice circles (people I knew wouldn't condemn me). All the stuff I felt I wasn't allowed to say came out in the novel; if we were allowed to talk our feelings out, we'd be a whole lot healthier.