- Motherhood Lost: A Feminist Account of Pregnancy Loss in America
Anthropologist Linda Layne has written a moving account of a subject matter that has only recently made it into the feminist domain: what happens to women who wish to have a biological child but miscarry, as in Layne's own case, not once but seven times. In fact, as Layne claims, hers is the first book-length feminist anthropological study of this shunned issue. She clarifies politically loaded terminology, such as miscarriage, spontaneous abortion, and stillbirth, and settles with the term "pregnancy loss." Her empirical study of several pregnancy loss organizations emphasizes that these are mutual support groups, not simply self-help groups.
Miscarriages are actually quite common; they represent at least 15 to 20 percent of pregnancies. Much underreporting happens in the United States because hospitals and doctors don't report them consistently. Also, women often do not know that they were pregnant if they lose the fetus early in the pregnancy. Women of color have the highest rates of pregnancy loss in the United States. Layne's study focuses on the experiences of middle-class white women, who have formed several national organizations, such as UNITE and SHARE; Layne becomes a participant observer in those groups and even becomes a counselor herself.
Layne argues that middle-class women who have experienced pregnancy loss are dealing with two highly affective and political forces: (1) fetal rights and (2) a cultural code of silence. The fetus has been elevated to the status of personhood, even at conception; and medical advances have elevated expectations about pregnancy—experiencing pregnancy at the time of quickening has vanished to an ancient past, indeed. Secondly, Layne notices that Americans do not have a sense of understanding how to grieve a mother's loss; in fact, if the fetus dies, her status as a mother is being challenged; and many women experience inappropriate remarks being made, rather than receiving consolation. This exacerbates the [End Page 233] women's sense of shame and self-blame. Feminists have played into this taboo, as well. Layne writes, "On the whole, feminist scholars have been careful to avoid the topic of pregnancy loss. Yet because the ambiguous status of fetuses is central to both pregnancy loss and abortion, pregnancy loss provides an ideal arena from which to explore alternative ways to conceptualize maternal/fetal relations" (28).
Mapping out the experiences of grief-struck women, Layne corrects several misconceptions about pregnancy; using a social constructivist approach, she notes that the popular and even feminist discussion of pregnancy paints a normalized, linear, progressive stage theory of pregnancy. Miscarriages and ectopic pregnancies are dubbed aberrations, and as in the case of the feminist self-help book Our Bodies, Ourselves, are not included in the segment on pregnancy; rather, as Layne notes, in the 1976 edition they are tucked away in a chapter called "Some exceptions to the normal childbearing experience" (241). Even the latest edition of Our Bodies follows this pattern of separation. Layne observes, "So focused has the women's health movement been in challenging biomedicine's pathologization of pregnancy and birth, it has systematically minimized and marginalized negative reproductive outcomes" (241).
The last chapter, "Breaking the Silence: A Feminist Agenda for Pregnancy Loss," was the most interesting to me; alas, it was very brief and often merely gestured at certain positions that need to be challenged by feminists, such as developing a critique of D and C abortion procedures. I would add that environmental ethical concerns play a huge role, not only with respect to the toxic aspects that Layne stresses, but also with respect to the foods available to us. For instance, a certain raw food diet that avoids pasteurized milk and juices and relies on raw eggs and meat might decrease the chance of pregnancy loss and eliminate the need for assisted reproductive technologies (cf. rawmilk.org). In addition, Layne could have elaborated on the existing tensions in mutual aid groups, which are hinted at earlier in...