*Warning: This newsletter is about stillbirths, miscarriages and abortion. If you’ve experienced them and find this issue triggering, maybe skip it, and check out this website for some extra resources.
It’s hard to imagine death when you think of the beginning of life. It seems cruel, counterintuitive, something to keep at bay and to avert even thinking about.
But death is so widespread when life is supposed to begin instead. For the first time this month, a report about stillbirths provides a more comprehensive overview of such a personal and tragic occurrence. From the limited data available, the UN Inter-Agency Group for Child Mortality Estimation (UN-IGME) has calculated that a stillbirth occurs every 16 seconds, for a total of 2 million stillborn babies every year.
The report calls stillbirths a “neglected tragedy” and addresses the steps that can be taken from a medical perspective to avoid them from happening, especially in the countries with the highest numbers: India, followed by Pakistan, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, China and Ethiopia.
But there are also other challenges child-bearers face, on top of the pain of experiencing a stillborn pregnancy.
In countries with restrictive abortion laws, women are jailed if they miscarry or have stillbirths. (Miscarriage or spontaneous abortion is usually defined when it happens in the first semester of the pregnancy. A stillbirth is defined when the loss takes place in the last semester or during childbirth.) In other parts of the world, a lot of social stigma comes with losing a pregnancy.
Just think of how many negative reactions there were recently when model Chrissy Teigen and her husband, singer-songwriter John Legend, announced on Instagram that they had lost their third pregnancy because of complications. The pictures they shared, of Teigen crying in her hospital bed and the two of them holding the baby, are hard to see, but they may be a necessary step to starting a conversation.
And we need to start this conversation. Because losing a pregnancy or a baby is a challenging, heartbreaking, and isolating experience.
Let’s talk about it
It has happened with friends and family. Sometimes I found out about their losses months after they happened. It was so sad to think of how unaware and unsupportive I must have been, and how hard it was for them to share the news.
Last week was Baby Loss Awareness Week, and I was glad to see several friends share images of lit candles on their social networks.
It’s a tough topic, but creating the spaces to talk about it seems a step in the right direction.
I found this short fiction story by Manuela Saragosa, a BBC journalist and former colleague of mine, a great account of the psychological effects that losing a “baby that was meant to be” can have on parents. There are blame games, guilt and different reactions to grief.
“It’s been months since we last spoke about our two early miscarriages, back when we still lived in London. Our two failed rolls of the dice. Surely it would jinx us if I mention them now?” thinks the story’s narrator at one point, avoiding to bring up the issue with her partner.
Even the language we use can create tension.
Another passage from Saragosa’s story: “They didn’t even make it beyond the twelve-week mark. Foetuses, Dave called them. Products of conception, the medics said. My lost babies.”
The word miscarriage in English is also quite a negative one.
Journalist Angela Garbes wrote an informative piece about pregnancy loss, starting from her own personal experience.
In one paragraph, Garbes draws a link between the use of the word miscarriage and the feeling of personal responsibility it conveys: “Let’s talk for a moment about the term ‘miscarriage.’ It’s objectively terrible. Think of the words that begin with the same prefix: mistake, misstep, misplaced, misspelled. ‘Mis’ seems to imply not only that something is wrong, but that you have an active role in making it so.”
She also says something else that surprised me: how easy it was for people to dismiss her miscarriage by saying: next one will go better.
“They pointed out that at least I now knew I could get pregnant. Over and over, I was told I could try again. For many women who have experienced pregnancy loss, healing becomes contingent on hope, on another pregnancy. But those directives, which come from well-meaning partners, family members, and healthcare practitioners, can get in the way of the more complex, healthier – and often slow – process of grieving and recovery.”
Every experience is different and very personal
It may seem obvious, but I think it’s necessary to say it out loud: my experience of what a foetus or a baby is is not the same as yours. The language we use is deeply personal and political at the same time.
When I was pregnant, I found it hard to think about what was growing inside my belly as a foetus. From the start, I thought of it as my baby. And I say this with the deep-rooted knowledge that a foetus and a baby are far from being the same, from a legal and biological perspective, and that calling foetuses babies does not serve any purpose in the battle for the legalisation of abortion – a battle in which I have a very clear stand. (If you’ve not read my previous stories, I am in favour of legalising abortion, and I explain more about it here.)
If you think that this is just a theoretical issue, then check out what’s happening in Italy. Women who had voluntary abortions found out that the foetuses had been buried, against the mothers’ consent, in a cemetery, with crosses and the mothers’ names on them – buried like babies.
If you’ve made it all this way, but this remains a tough piece to read because of your own experience, I would like to refer you to one more article: BBC journalist Fiona Crack wrote this personal and touching reportage about her own grief and the help she got in her recovery thanks to other women.
Before you go …
September was our month of celebrations, as The Correspondent turned one year old, thanks to the support of our members.
I was recently interviewed by Gastón Roitberg, a journalist working for the Argentine newspaper La Nación, and he asked me why it matters that we turned one.
This is what I said: “It gives me hope because it means that there are people willing to pay to read quality journalism, a journalism without ads or economic interests that mark the agenda, a journalism that is not determined by the 24-hour news cycle, a journalism that can contribute to creating a better world. As our managing editor Eliza Anyangwe put it, we are ‘unabashedly optimistic and idealistic’. The fact that 50,000 people donated to a medium that did not yet exist in 2018 and that now a part of them will stay for a second year confirms that we’re not the only idealists in the world.”
If you speak Spanish, you can read the full interview here.
Thanks for being here.
Until next week,
This article first appeared in The Correspondent, the member-funded platform that shut down on 1 January 2021.