Little Italy. Ottawa. Photo: RossDunn / Flickr

Ottawa, Canada’s capital, was a little unsettled this summer. The movie Unplanned caused a stir across the country and briefly re-ignited a debate around abortion. It tells the story of former Planned Parenthood clinic director Abby Johnson, who left the organisation after witnessing an ultrasound guided abortion.

Panned by critics, accused of lies and damn lies by abortion supporters, the film none the less saw a successful run in Canadian theatres, including Ottawa, where showings were extended. But it’s probably safe to say that Ottawa was more rattled by something else. A fetus was found on the sidewalk in the Italian quarter, known as Little Italy.

Abortion has been completely unrestricted in Canada since a Supreme Court decision of 1988. One of the consequences of abortion on demand is ambivalence towards miscarriage: how can we comfort one woman in her grief after the loss of a baby, while we brush aside the loss when a woman has her unborn child aborted? If the loss is merely subjective, concerning the woman’s feelings, how do we speak about the child?

In the disturbing case under discussion, Ottawans expressed concern for the mother, and I am glad of that.  But in televised reaction on the street, no one expressed concern for the baby. (Once completely outside the birth canal we can refer to him or her as a baby, can we not? Even in Canada?) The police said there was “no chance of revival” as “the fetus” was “very young…end of first trimester.”

The mother was found in the aftermath of public shock and was given care. The first responders in Ottawa, and later the media, did not disclose her name or how old she was. We could be looking at a girl who may not have known she was pregnant. On the other hand, we could be looking at a mature woman. We do not know the circumstances surrounding the loss. For example, it’s possible that the mother took Mifegymiso.

Mifegymiso is the brand name for the combination of two pills — one containing mifepristone and the other misoprostol. It is the abortion pill and has only been widely available in Canada for a few years. Formerly known as RU486, the contractions brought on by it are exceedingly painful, as contractions are. They are also unpredictable to a degree. 

Yet this procedure is marketed as better because it takes place in the privacy of a woman’s home, it has Canadian abortion proponents very excited. Finally! Privacy! Unless…

Unless you’re out for a walk. Women have reported delivering in public washrooms on campuses and in malls. In any case, I don’t doubt for a moment that taking Mifegymiso is painful, lonely and frightening, regardless of how old you are.

According to the Sunnybrook Pregnancy and Infant Loss Network in Toronto, “As many as one in five pregnancies end in miscarriage, and each year in Canada there are approximately six stillborn infants in 1000 total births.” Recently, Ontario added its name to the list of jurisdictions to mark October 15 as Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Day, to acknowledge the grief that accompanies such losses. It is also marked in many European countries, the U.S., the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, South America and South Africa, to name a few.

Why is there a need to dedicate a day to something women have been comforting each other over, delicately and sensitively one hopes, since the dawn of mankind? Is it because many of these countries have had abortion for decades? For too long, abortion has imposed a cone of silence on grief over the loss of an unborn child.

While Michelle Obama, Carrie Underwood and others have been called brave for speaking about their miscarriages recently, another woman is drawing attention to the pain of miscarriage. Jamie Stelter, a NY traffic Anchor has written a thoughtful piece in Glamour magazine, vividly describing the grief and sadness.

It will be a difficult read for millions of women. Here is where I teared up, despite never having known that loss:

“The nurse asks whether this was my first pregnancy. “Oh no,” I say. “We have an almost-two-year-old daughter.” Two pregnancies, she begins to jot down on her form. I stop her. “How many pregnancies have you had?” she asks. I look at my husband, Brian, and then back to her. My throat clenches and I immediately feel tears swell behind my eyes. Six. The room falls silent, filling with a new kind of trauma during what was supposed to be the easy part of the appointment. Six. I'm not sure I've ever said the number out loud before. I've been pregnant six times; I have only one child.”

Giving this kind of loss the attention it deserves, in medicine, media, and mundane life, we are going to be forced to acknowledge that we are talking about a baby, or there is no reason to grieve. We are talking about how mothers and fathers relate to their children, or there is no reason to grieve.

In Canada as everywhere, abortion complicates everything. Abortion complicates medical practices, like healthcare protocols of informed consent and safeguards around dispensing pills, as well as nursing and midwifery. 

Abortion complicates decisions to forge ahead despite difficult pregnancies or diagnosed fetal anomalies.

Abortion complicates conscience rights. Abortion complicates politics.

Abortion complicates talking about miscarriages. But in Ottawa, while Unplanned was an unmitigated success, Little Italy was where all the complications confronted us: a baby died.

Johanne Boucher writes from Ottawa, Canada

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is a New Zealand journalist with a special interest in family issues. She began her working life as a secondary school teacher but always fancied the life of the scribe. Too late, she...