In Defense of Pregnancy
With the likely overturning of Roe v. Wade expected any day now, the press has been full of accounts of how difficult pregnancy is for women. In addition to stories about the dangers of ectopic pregnancies (which can be life threatening), hyperemesis gravidarum (extreme nausea and vomiting that can put women in the hospital), perineal trauma, preeclampsia (pathological high blood pressure that is a leading cause of childbirth-related death), and gestational diabetes (which also sometimes persists post-pregnancy), we’ve been reminded that for a share of women who’ve given birth multiple times, some side effects are permanent. About one-third of women who have three or more children, for example, experience pelvic floor disorders.
Supporters of abortion rights have been at pains to stress that abortion is far safer medically than carrying a baby to term. These stories are clearly intended to rebut arguments that adoption is a reasonable alternative to abortion because of the burden on the mother’s body.
I understand the motive, but things have gotten out of hand. In their eagerness to uphold the abortion right, they’ve slipped into defaming pregnancy itself. Young women reading these stories may get the impression that pregnancy is a hellscape of pain, disfigurement, and degradation for women. Kate Manning confides that she has experienced urine leakage since giving birth, and urges that “we who oppose the annihilation of our bodily autonomy ought to plaster statehouses with photos of our episiotomy incisions, our Caesarean scars, our intravenous-line hematomas, our bloody postnatal sanitary pads and bloodstained bedsheets, our cracked nipples and infected breasts.”
Oh my. Apparently someone needs to speak up for pregnancy.
Yes, there are complications of pregnancy, but they are quite rare, and rarely severe in the developed world. In the United States, 92 percent of pregnancies are healthy and normal. And among the 8 percent of pregnancies featuring complications, most are not life-threatening. In 2020, there were 23.8 maternal deaths in childbirth per 100,000 live births, or in other words, 0.0238 percent. That number has been creeping up in recent years, and we should pay attention. A Blue Cross survey reports that more women are entering pregnancy with pre-existing conditions including hypertension, obesity, Type II diabetes, anxiety, and major depression, all of which are associated with increased risk. Advanced maternal age is also highly correlated with complications, as is singlehood. Good prenatal care is essential for all pregnant women, but even among women with health insurance, 33 percent reported getting fewer than the recommended 10 prenatal visits.
So, room for improvement—but where is the acknowledgement that pregnancy is one of the great joys of life? I have three children (two pregnancies) and can report that despite the aches and pains and the bodily changes (that delicacy forbids discussing), my days as a pregnant woman were among the happiest of my life. Sure, there were discomforts. Though I was lucky to have uneventful pregnancies, there were the inevitable pitfalls. I recall taking our older two kids to a carousel while pregnant with my third and having to look away. Just seeing a spinning object was enough to induce nausea. And by the end of my first pregnancy, I was doing jumping jacks in hopes of bringing on labor!
But pregnancy is wondrous. You are never alone. Your body has a wisdom and logic of its own. It knows to secrete hormones to loosen your joints and if you give birth to a preemie, your milk will be specially formulated for a preterm infant’s needs. It’s really quite awe-inspiring.
In many respects, life is easier for men than women, but the ability to carry a child is an incomparable gift that I wouldn’t have traded for all the strength and self-esteem that are so predominant in men. The sense of partnership with nature or God in bringing a new human being into the world is profoundly moving. My senses were more acute—from smell to taste to hearing. Food has never tasted so good and all of my nerve endings vibrated with special potency. Sometimes that could be embarrassing—as when I had to leave the musical Miss Saigon at intermission because the theme of losing a child was too overwhelming and I was weeping uncontrollably. Pregnancy is also weird. They say that food cravings are nature’s way of ensuring that women get balanced nutrition. I doubt that. I couldn’t stand broccoli while pregnant but would practically dive across a restaurant table to get at an innocent stranger’s French fries.
Most people, very much including most women, want children. In fact, polls consistently find that people desire more children than they wind up having. There are a variety of reasons for this (one study found that car seat regulations for older kids actually depress family size), but the cost of child care and college factor in. And many Americans have the mistaken impression that they will be fertile into their forties. In fact, egg quality starts to decline at age 32 and declines sharply after age 37. Nearly all of those women you see profiled having their first babies in their forties and even fifties are using assisted reproduction and donor eggs. More people need to understand the implacability of the biological clock. A Harris poll found that 39 percent of women 35 and older who were attempting pregnancy said they would have started at younger ages if they’d been aware of declining fertility.
Meanwhile, the number of young adults who are shunning children due to exaggerated fears of climate catastrophe depresses me. First, because while climate change is a problem, it is nothing like the extinction-level event millions have been led to believe. Second, these couples are missing out on one of life’s most rewarding experiences. In the past few years, several studies have found that parents are less happy than childless couples, but I’m skeptical. Maybe if you’re measuring moment-to-moment satisfaction and you catch a sleep-deprived dad with a fussy newborn and a truculent 2-year-old, you might see less temporary pleasure. But in the long run, having children (assuming no catastrophes) leads to deeper and more profound rewards. These things are impossible to fully capture with surveys, but it is instructive to consider several questions that Gallup asked in 2013. Among Americans with children, 90 percent say they would have kids “if they had it to do over again,” while among childless adults, 50 percent say they would have at least one child if they had it to do over again. Forty-seven percent would have had two or more. A surprising number of those with children, 46 percent, said they thought a family of three or more children would have been ideal. Six percent wanted six or more.
People’s strong feelings about abortion shouldn’t lead them to defame pregnancy itself. Far from a burden, I found it to be a highlight of my life. And yes, if I had had more time (and hadn’t struggled with infertility and assuming my husband agreed) I would have had more kids!