What is personal is not always political

Sophie O’Rourke discusses her experience of ectopic pregnancy and the need to have more open conversations about women’s reproductive health

A year and a half ago my life was turned upside down by the discovery that I was pregnant. I was nine weeks along, and in acute agony. This pain turned out to be due to the fact that the foetus was not in my uterus, but in my left fallopian tube. This is called an ectopic pregnancy, and can be life threatening if not treated with surgery immediately. 

This pregnancy was to have an emotional impact on me that I had never expected to deal with. In fact, no one had expected to deal with it, and that’s my main reason for writing this article: every year students have sex, and as a consequence of this people are getting pregnant, and some of these pregnancies end in miscarriage or ectopic pregnancies. I’m in no way an expert, but I do have a perspective informed by my own experience that I would like to share with you. 

“The grief was always accompanied by guilt. Guilt that I felt this way when really I felt I had no right.”

Initially, I was stunned. I had suspected I was pregnant for a while before ending up in the emergency room, but it was something I speculated about theoretically, unconnected from what that would really mean. When I was informed of what was happening, I was shocked. That shock was to last for a while. And then slowly, it faded into grief. Sometimes it was acute, if I saw someone else was pregnant on Facebook for instance. But more often it is this nagging sense of loss. The grief was always accompanied by guilt. Guilt that I felt this way when I thought I had no right. Guilt that I had let down myself as well as my boyfriend and my family. And guilt that I had let this happen, that I must have done something wrong for my body to have rejected it. These are not rational thoughts, but people have irrational reactions to breaking their wrists — is it any wonder that something so loaded as an ectopic pregnancy would evoke these feelings?

That is how I felt, not that I have had many opportunities to express this, because the first thing I learnt about experiencing an ectopic pregnancy is that silence surrounds it. People don’t ask and they also don’t know what to say. I think this is particularly true of students, although I have experienced this kind of silence from many people of all ages. This is usually how it goes: I tell a close friend or family member what’s happened to me, we have one conversation about it, and I am never questioned again. Now this makes sense — it is sufficiently traumatic that no one wants to bring it up for fear of reminding you of it. But this also sends the message that it shouldn’t be brought up, which could serve to separate a community of people who have a shared experience. How can they find each other if they are not able to talk about what they have experienced? We shouldn’t want that, because it stops people from helping those they love who’ve had this experience. We shouldn’t want that, because the burden of miscarriage at a young age is hard enough without the added burden of taboo. 

Why do people feel discomfort when talking to loved ones about miscarriages or ectopic pregnancies? Well, one obvious theory is that they don’t know what to say. Particularly when considering the student population, this is not surprising. It often could be one of the first times they have come across pregnancy and childbirth in a context outside of an older generation; of course they might feel out of their depth! But on the flip side, I can confirm that your friend who has experienced a miscarriage probably also feels out of their depth, and your silence can make them feel more alone. 

“Women’s health has a place in politics, but politics doesn’t need to be a part of this conversation.”

Listening is golden. When people say talking about your feelings helps, they are not wrong. Now I don’t know about most people, but talking to a wall makes me feel crazy, so having a friend who is willing to listen is crucial. If you are worried about saying the wrong thing, the most important thing I would say is to separate politics and your friend’s experience. Women’s health has a place in politics, but politics doesn’t need to be a part of this conversation, and I will include three pieces of anecdotal evidence to support my point.

One well intentioned, but emotionally inept friend attempted to comfort me by describing my experience as “just a normal medical procedure” — and of course, for some women, that is what it is. But for many it is not, and this kind of statement does not allow space for expressing the range of emotions that someone might be experiencing. It is dismissive, even if that is not the intention. It is also an example of the almost automatic politicalization of women’s health. There is a time and a place to talk about your beliefs about women’s health — talking about my ectopic pregnancy is not that time. 

“My unique experience was being absorbed into someone’s political belief system, automatically, without thought.”

In a similar vein, but from the other end of the political spectrum, I was speaking to another friend about my experience, and he remarked that the surgery was acceptable as the foetus was not viable, had it been an abortion that would be different. That is an inflammatory remark, but its impact was pretty much the same on me. My unique experience was being absorbed into someone’s political belief system, automatically, without thought. 

I think it is because people are so used to thinking of women’s health in a political sense they have forgotten how to talk about it on a personal level. Especially students who most often come across the topic in that political forum, be it from a pro-choice or pro-life perspective. To reiterate, women’s health has a place in politics, but politics doesn’t always have a place in women’s health. 

To end this article on a positive note I would like to add a third, much more positive anecdote, which includes a simple piece of advice for those who want to help but might not know what to say. 

“And I think that is a very good start — simply telling someone that it was not their fault.”

I didn’t know this third girl at all as well as I knew the other two friends I have mentioned already. We were talking about something tangentially connected to the topic of pregnancy and I mentioned my ectopic pregnancy. She stopped me and told me she had not known I had experienced that. Then she told me she had never experienced anything like this herself, but had read articles that said that women who have experienced this also felt profound guilt. So she said she guessed what she would like to tell me is that this was not my fault. Hearing this was instantly overwhelming, as if without knowing it that is all I had ever wanted to hear. And I think that is a very good start — simply telling someone that it was not their fault. 

When a friend of yours tells you that they are pregnant, that they had a miscarriage, an ectopic pregnancy, or that they had an abortion, allow that to be unique to them, not part of a larger political debate. What is personal is not always political. And lastly, listen. It could mean the world to someone you care about.