A Catholic culture of life must recognize miscarriage and pregnancy loss
My experience as a Black woman, mothering two girls while currently going through my sixth pregnancy (not every one planned but each one wanted), informs my desire for a space where I am allowed to experience the range of emotions connected to my carrying new life. That includes my many unspoken remembrances and milestones: the date when a baby was miscarried or stillborn, the due date for a baby who didn’t make it. These have become goalposts I must pass (nine weeks, 12 weeks, 26 weeks and five days) in order to feel more hope for a healthy baby.
These experiences have only strengthened my belief that church teachings on life beginning at conception and human dignity overall require us to have a broader, more sensitive approach to pregnancy and pregnancy loss, and to actively support family-friendly policies within our parishes, Catholic institutions and society as a whole. One of the great beauties of faith, and of the life of Jesus Christ, is the ability to radically reimagine society. Given that abortion is so central to the political conversation right now, that maternal health disparities have worsened since Covid-19, and that there is much to be desired in terms of legislative policies that support families, the church is uniquely positioned to model a true pro-life, pro-family culture.
We use the language of the “unborn” mostly in the context of abortion, but we must also pay attention to families in our parishes who are experiencing pregnancy loss and help them to openly grieve. Perhaps as many as one in four pregnancies end in loss, but it is not something that is often discussed in society, nor within our church.
We use the language of the “unborn” mostly in the context of abortion, but we must also pay attention to families experiencing pregnancy loss and help them to openly grieve.
Women who experience miscarriages are more likely to experience anxiety and depression, and even to contemplate suicide. Fortunately, in the instance of our first miscarriage, my pastor, along with nuns at our parish, developed a special Mass for my family that helped us through that experience. And as I began to discuss our miscarriage with others, I was shocked to find out how many people I was close to had silently experienced the same. Worse, I was horrified to hear about the bad church-related experiences some people had in these vulnerable moments. There is clearly a need for the church to go beyond the annual Masses for pregnancy loss that some dioceses hold, and to systematically prepare priests to pastor to families who experience loss and integrate discussions of the range of challenges of reproductive health into parish life.
Our family also dealt with a stillbirth, a traumatic experience where you must suddenly contemplate giving birth and burying your baby at the same time. Those of us who experience this are still parents to these babies, and there is a lingering grief when that particular experience of parenthood is not recognized. I count myself as fortunate. In the hours that we spent with our dead son, we were able to have both a woman religious and a priest pray with us at the hospital, and our pastor celebrated a beautiful funeral. But that grief goes well beyond the immediate sense of loss, and while I expected others to move on, it was a bit jarring when fellow parishioners quickly began to ask when we were planning on expanding our family, failing to consider the baby we recently brought into the world.
Which brings me back to language. People do not understand that they inherently devalue my girls when they say they hope we have a son. There’s pain for me every time someone doesn’t recognize I have had a son. “Do you all have a preference?” is a neutral way to ask about a new child if you must, but let’s normalize leaving that up to God.
It was a bit jarring when fellow parishioners quickly began to ask when we were planning on expanding our family, failing to consider the baby we recently brought into the world.
Being more attentive to pregnancy loss is simply one way to make our parishes and other Catholic institutions more pastoral, but there are other considerations if we strive to be models of pro-family spaces. For example, our church has changing tables in both the men’s and women’s restrooms. And how does your parish make mothers feel if they nurse during Mass? Do Catholic institutions offer paid sick and family leave for mothers and fathers, and for adoptions, too? Do they have a bereavement policy that includes pregnancy loss?
My faith has driven the career I have in the labor movement, fighting for the betterment of all workers, and there is a real opportunity for an alliance between labor and the Catholic Church to advocate for societal change in this regard. Child care is not affordable or accessible in this country for most, and the people that provide the care often are not paid family-supporting wages themselves. Expansion of Medicaid coverage in that critical first year of birth when mothers and babies are most at risk is another policy that should be more widespread. The church should not be afraid to tell hard truths to political allies who may attempt to embrace the pro-life mantle without backing pro-family policies.
Finally, it is important in our country to specifically name the racial disparities around maternal and infant mortality. Catholic hospitals, which are an increasing part of a consolidating health landscape, should be at the forefront of eliminating said disparities. Too many Black women die, no matter their economic class, in childbirth or within the first year of the baby’s life. This should not be acceptable or ignored.
The church has never been limited in its vision regarding the end of abortion and should not half-step in human dignity. There is much work to be done in creating a true culture of life in Catholic spaces.