The Burdens of Motherhood by Eileen McCafferty DiFranco

The Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization to hold that the Constitution does not confer a right to an abortion, overruling Roe v. Wade (1973) and Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992) and returning the authority to regulate abortion to the states, has been one of the most divisive rulings of the last half century. The Guardian characterized it as a tipping point to civil war; Politico stated that “this sudden cleaving in the United States will go far beyond abortion access, affecting healthcare, the criminal legal system and politics, at all levels, in the coming years.”

The issue of reproductive rights cuts across many personal and political spheres: ideas of privacy and bodily autonomy; the relationship between the individual and the state (and, in the context of a Catholic-majority Supreme Court, between the individual, the state, and the church); and sexual ethics and family planning. Add to this highly contested metaphysical, scientific, and theological questions of embryology and human personhood, and it can be difficult to carve out a conciliar space between what Tina Beattie has called the “two monolithic politico-religious absolutes” of the life/choice binary framing.

Yet, as M. T. Dávila and others have argued, this is precisely what we must do if we are to build “broad coalitions of cooperation” that secure the welfare of women and families and promote human dignity. “Some church leaders refuse to sit at the table with groups that might hold viewpoints that directly oppose church teaching, fearful of creating scandal, ambiguity or confusion about these teachings,” Dávila writes. “We cannot hold to these absolute boundaries when discrete collaboration around certain projects for the common good—especially as it concerns women in crisis pregnancies and throughout their challenges as mothers—is a possibility.”

In these fractious times, we believe it is important to listen to the stories of those whose lives have been impacted by abortion. The essay below recounts the author’s experience enduring a life-threatening miscarriage. Writing about a similar experience in Commonweal (which she later discussed on an informative podcast), Mollie Wilson O’Reilly says that “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.” Without adequate distinction between abortion and natural pregnancy loss, the Dobbs decision could affect miscarriage care and place women at risk of grave health complicationsEd.

My husband and I have four children and had two foster children. I also had two miscarriages. This is the story of one of them.

We were on a much-anticipated vacation in New Jersey when I felt a little twinge deep in my lower abdomen. When I returned from the beach, I was not surprised to find little brown innocent-looking spots on my underwear. I immediately knew what those spots meant. They had announced the end of my first pregnancy 10 years earlier. I immediately knew that I was going to miscarry this pregnancy at exactly the same point where I miscarried the first.

I had had less than satisfactory hospital experiences with my first two children. The third time around I decided that I was going to have this much wanted baby at a freestanding birth center where my care providers were midwives rather than doctors. So when I began to spot, I dutifully called the midwife.

She said—and I knew because I am a nurse—that most often miscarriages just resolve naturally and that my body would eventually discard the fetus, which at eight weeks was a half inch long and weighed a quarter of an ounce. We mutually agreed to watch and wait to see what happened. I was to call her if the bleeding got too heavy but she didn’t expect that to happen. Miscarriage, after all, is a naturally occurring phenomenon.

Well, my miscarriage did not progress naturally. After about two or three days, I began to pass some very large blood clots. I called again. Because I usually think I can muscle through almost anything, I usually underestimate what is happening to me, as I did this day. Nature is nature, right? Surely my body would know how to do the right thing. It did the last time.

It wasn’t happening this time. The midwife must have sensed something in my voice and called me back. She told me that I should go to an abortion clinic near the birthing center where a doctor would do a dilation and evacuation. By that time my condition was so bad, I later joked, the middle of the street would have sufficed. Except nothing about this miscarriage was funny. It was, in fact, harrowing in many ways.

The entrance to the abortion clinic was lined with anti-abortion protestors. Had I gone to the abortion clinic that day, I would have been confronted by demonstrators yelling at me and condemning me for killing my baby. To this day, I think of what having “baby killer” yelled at me as I was losing a much-wanted baby would have done to me.

Both the birthing center and the abortion clinic still exist, so there could have been any number of women throughout the years who shared my same experience. One would hope that the protestors would have educated themselves about situations like mine. Ignorance is no excuse for cruelty.

Thank God I didn’t have to go to the abortion clinic. When I told the midwife about the size of the clots, she sent me to the hospital. The doctor was kind enough to allow my husband into the emergency room to hold my hand while he did the procedure without anesthesia. He said that my cervix was wide open and there was nothing else anybody could do.

Thankfully, the very painful procedure took only a couple of minutes. When I could finally rest on the stretcher, I looked around the room. It looked like a blood bath. And it was my blood that covered the floor and splattered some of the walls. My blood pressure was 80/48. As I looked around the emergency cubicle, I thought that if this had happened to me a hundred years ago, I would have bled to death.

I shared my experience last fall online during these very fractious times and a woman commented to me, “Thank you for sharing the story of your abortion.” I thought to myself, “Abortion? I didn’t have an abortion, I had a miscarriage.” As I said, I’m a nurse, and I worked in labor and delivery and in the newborn intensive care unit, so I should have known better. Medically speaking, miscarriages are called spontaneous abortions. Indeed, as much as I didn’t like the term, I realized that I had, indeed, had an abortion.

My abortion blends in with the millions of other women whose experiences around pregnancy and the many ways it can end are as problematic as mine in an infinite variety of ways. Terrible and unexpected things, life-threatening things, happen all the time during pregnancy. And we need to talk about them and deal with them in a medically appropriate manner. As I was lying on the stretcher passing steak-sized clots, I would not have wanted to hear doctors debating how the presence of a fetal heartbeat would determine my course of care.

What I have learned through my nursing experience as well as my personal experience is that 25 percent, or one in four pregnancies, end in spontaneous abortion. There are some researchers who believe that the number is as high as 50 percent, given the fraught-filled journey the fertilized egg must make to attach to the uterine wall at the right time in the right place. Many spontaneous abortions, like mine, are medical emergencies that must be dealt with promptly and compassionately. An ectopic pregnancy, where the fertilized egg grows in the fallopian tube, for instance, results in death unless treated promptly by removing the embryo. A dead mother usually does not produce a live baby.

Although I was terribly sad after each of my abortions and mourned for months, I never thought of them as children. For a brief moment in time, they were a wonderful possibility but ones, unfortunately, that never came to fruition. They never had the chance to become “real.” My experiences were very sad, but a part of life, as my midwife wisely told me. Women have had their pregnancies end this way from the very beginning. As my mother would say, they were simply not meant to be, for whatever reason. When I think of the mothers I know who lost their babies in the second or third trimester or at birth, my loss is, for me at least, totally different and of far lesser caliber. They lost a child that they once felt move or even touched. I lost a possibility.

I have found over the years that it is easy to be judgmental when nothing serious happens to you or when you have had the financial or psychological resources to resolve situations that might devastate others. I must confess that I was like that for far too long. I was one of those people who believed that I, through my own efforts, had pulled myself up by own bootstraps, never realizing that those straps were directly attached to my parents who were pulling along with me.

For too long I believed that everyone had parents like mine who always provided the things that we needed to grow and be successful in school. My mother sat with us every single night at the dining room table and made sure we did our homework. After our baths, she went to the corner store for our nightly treat, an ice cream cone. Although my father worked two jobs and was always dog tired, he was always our willing chauffeur. I always rested comfortably and confidently in the knowledge that if ever I should get into trouble my parents would always be there. If one of us would come home pregnant—and one did—my parents would and did take them all in.

And so my heart goes out to mothers whose pregnancies ended, however that end occurred and for whatever reason they occurred. I feel only compassion for women who were not as fortunate as I.

Closed minds and harsh voices do not make the burden of motherhood easy, even in the best of circumstances, but especially when things go wrong as they so often do. Outside interference by strangers in what is surely a very private and personal matter does not make the burden any easier.

I hope that we in America can reach a point where compassion and empathy rather than condemnation and punishment surround women having problem pregnancies. Impersonal and inflexible laws coupled with bureaucratic oversight and intervention serve no one well, not even the enforcers. Nobody knows, to paraphrase an old spiritual, the trouble our sisters might be going through, and charity, as my mother so frequently said, covers a multitude of sins.

As we travel into the unknown world of post-Roe with our respective, deeply held opinions about abortion written upon our hearts, let us always remember the women whose stories we can’t and don’t know and keep our judgment to ourselves. If we believe and trust in God, then it is God, the all-loving and all-forgiving God, who will work out their salvation as God works out our own. ♦

Eileen McCafferty DiFranco is an ordained Roman Catholic Womanpriest and the co-pastor of Saint Mary Magdalene Community in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania. TAC’s 2021 profile of her life and work, including an excerpt from her book How to Keep Your Parish Alive (Emergence Education Press, 2017), is available here.

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