Like most Catholics in the post–Roe v. Wade generation, I grew up hearing very little about miscarriages and a great deal about abortion. I thought I knew what abortion meant: abortion is murder; abortion stops a beating heart; abortion is a mortal sin. I did not know that, in medical terms, a miscarriage is a “spontaneous abortion.” When my first pregnancy ended, I was stunned to see the word “abortion” in my medical file. There I was, a woman who would never consider “having an abortion,” and yet somehow, very much in spite of myself, I already had.
If you bring up the matter of medical terminology in a debate about abortion restrictions, you may be accused of muddying the waters with semantics. Pro-lifers will tell you that of course they know the difference between abortion and natural pregnancy loss. But where the moral difference between choosing to end a life and suffering an unintended loss may be clear, the practical, legal, and medical realities overlap in complicated ways. I have learned over the course of six pregnancies and four births how inadequate pro-life rhetoric can be, and how lonely it is to find yourself in a place beyond the reach of slogans like “Choose life!” The awful irony of restrictions on abortion is the way they put up barriers to basic health care, barriers that can be dangerous for women whose experience of pregnancy is not a smooth path to motherhood.