There was an interesting article in the Guardian today about one of the less discussed aspects of miscarriage: the language employed about it by the NHS. “How dare they call my lost baby a “product of conception”’ was the headline for Katy Lindemann’s moving piece about her miscarriage, where she describes how “a baby” – as her unborn child was described when still gestating – was, after dying in the womb and being surgically removed, referred to as the “retained products of conception”. She notes: “From the outset of your antenatal care, the NHS refers to “your baby”’ but not when he or she dies. And she goes on to note that their remains may, if delivered before 24 weeks’ gestation, be incinerated with other clinical waste.
She calls for the NHS to use “more appropriate” vocabulary and recommends the Japanese approach, which is to describe all losses in pregnancy at whatever stage in the same way, and commemorate them with Buddhist ceremonies. And she draws attention to a ceremony this Saturday in which bereaved families will light candles for Baby Loss Awareness Week.
I was moved by her account, of course, but it was baffling to read it without any reference to one obvious reason for this non-committal language, viz, the fact that you can in Britain kill the product of conception for virtually any reason up to 24 weeks’ gestation, and up to birth in the case of foetal abnormality.
So of course you don’t talk lightly about babies, unless you’re either a pro-lifer or a woman who actually wants to be pregnant. If you talk about the foetus in human terms you risk stigmatising the process whereby you can kill him or her quite legally. Abortion is what feminists mean when they talk about “reproductive rights”; that’s the reason why some Democrats are so keen to keep Brett Kavanaugh out of the Supreme Court lest he compromise Roe v Wade. In this context, to talk about the existence of the foetus as something real is an error of taste; it was a factor in Ealing council’s extraordinary decision to exclude pro-lifers from the vicinity of a Marie Stopes abortion clinic, because they did indeed try to talk about the foetus as male or female, as human, to the women going into the clinic.
This wilful self-deception was very much at work in the Irish referendum campaign when the pro-choicers condemned the other side for producing images of foetuses in the womb which were used on posters – some, frankly, weren’t that prepossessing, being only nine weeks’ old, from black and white scans, but the thing was, they reminded everyone of what abortion actually does.
Legislation now being passed in Ireland will allow for unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks (then on the British basis with token restrictions up to 23 weeks) – that is to say, up to the point when almost every pregnant woman will have her first scan and will be invited to admire the creature’s little feet and hands. The worst single example of linguistic dishonesty during the campaign was an essay by the novelist Anne Enright in support of abortion for the book, Repeal the Eighth, edited by Una Mullally. She referred to the foetus throughout as an “embryo”. Really? Most abortions are early, thank goodness, but even so, it’s nuts to suggest they only involve embryos.
So, how to produce language about the unborn human being that respects the sensitivities of parents who suffer a miscarriage without offending the greater number of women who have had abortions. Answer: you can’t. It’s not possible for the same creature to be a baby in one reading, a product of conception in another. Yet it’s the same human being. It’s as if a foetus is human only if it’s wanted; if it isn’t, it ceases to be human, philosophically and linguistically, because otherwise abortion rights could be compromised. It’s not what anyone could call a scientific approach.
I, too, applaud the honesty of the Japanese approach to these things. When I was in Japan, ages ago, we went to a cemetery where I noticed a number of little paper windmills, the kind of pinwheels children use. I asked why. They were placed there, I was told, by Japanese women and girls who’d had abortions as an act of remembrance. So the foetuses, babies, products of conception, were acknowledged. They were oddly moving.