Opinion What it means when miscarriage is a crime

(Shadra Strickland for The Washington Post)
(Shadra Strickland for The Washington Post)

Katy Simpson Smith is the author of three novels, most recently “The Everlasting,” and a book of history, “We Have Raised All of You: Motherhood in the South, 1750-1835.”

This spring, I miscarried at 9½ weeks. My body didn’t recognize that the embryo no longer had a heartbeat, so my doctor prescribed a round of misoprostol, a drug also used in abortions; it expelled everything from me except the embryo. She prescribed a second round, which gave me a 24-hour fever, during which I moderated a panel at a literary festival, delirious and wearing a diaper.

A day later, the bleeding started on its own, and I bled nearly every day, expelling tissue, for 2½ months. I kept working. I bled in four countries, 10 states and a U.S. territory. Toward the end, concerned about infection, my doctor prescribed a third round of misoprostol. (I had declined a D&C (dilation and curettage), the surgical procedure to remove a uterus’s contents, because the cost after insurance was $6,000.)

Finally the bleeding stopped. For 10 days I moved through the world like an unmarked person. I briefly thought about other things, such as my teaching and my writing. But a few hours after the Dobbs decision was announced on June 24 — after I called my partner and sobbed, I don’t want to be a woman — I started bleeding again, heavily, for eight days. (My period, finally, resumed.) I have spent most of this year bloodied.

I grew up in Jackson, Miss., one mile from the Pink House: the Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which until the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade was the only clinic in the state where doctors offered abortion services. I am also a historian who has written a book on motherhood and race in the 19th-century South. As I faced my own maternal pain for the first time, it was impossible not to think of the women I encountered during my research.

The Mississippi clinic at the center of the fight to end abortion in America

For instance: In 1830, a Black woman in South Carolina miscarried. The man who claimed to own her made a record of her loss in a list titled “Crimes and Misdemeanors.” On July 16, he wrote, “Sibby Misscarried; believe She did so on purpose. Stop her Christmas & lock her up.”

“Did so on purpose”? Maybe. Women knew how to achieve abortions through chewing the cotton plant’s root or drinking dogwood tea. Is it a crime not to want a child conceived through rape, born into suffering, bound for brutality? Or the miscarriage may have occurred spontaneously, brought on by poor nutrition or the physical labor demanded of pregnant women. Is it a misdemeanor to be a woman who’s alive?

Writing under the protective umbrella of Whiteness, I would never compare my life to that of an enslaved woman in the antebellum South. But I think about Sibby’s physical pain, her bewildered grief, who else was around to hold her. The fragility of her life.

I think also of the women living in 21st-century Mississippi, where before Roe was overturned, a Black woman was over 100 times more likely to die from maternity than from legal abortion.

I am trying to earn a living, to have productive thoughts, all while being at war with my body. It is expelling cells, opening itself up to infection, subduing me.

Yet even in this combat of dissociative grief, I have never felt a clearer ownership of my body. It’s no longer hypothetical: This writhing, inconstant substance is mine. My womb is mine. The embryo that emerged out of my matter, died within my matter, was mine.

Antiabortion laws are forced-birth laws. Here’s what that looks like.

It is an awesome power. But is it too much?

In the 19th century, it was too much for Sibby to own her uterus. Miscarriage transferred power from the male enslaver — who could rape at will and separate families — to the enslaved woman, whose reproductive might was so threatening that America has been legislating it since 1662. That was the year Virginia declared that children were “bond or free only according to the condition of the mother,” which meant White men’s rape would lead not to repercussions but to capital. An enslaved woman’s child was a commodity. To fail to make a child — by choice or chance — was to steal from the state. Lock her up.

In our time, Dobbs says that owning my uterus is still too much. That protecting “potential life” is too great a responsibility for my small wisdom. The misoprostol I was prescribed three times this spring is no longer easily available; some pharmacies are refusing to fill legal prescriptions. Dobbs seeks to punish me for my body’s power, to remind everyone with a womb that we belong to someone else: not to ourselves, not to the fetus but to the patriarchal state.

The Pink House has been shut down. If I become pregnant again, I may miscarry again; I may need an abortion. Will someone be watching to make sure I live? Will there be women to come and tend me, lift up my life? Or will a government mark my body as a crime? Lock me up.

Roe v. Wade and abortion access in America

Roe v. Wade overturned: The Supreme Court has struck down Roe v. Wade, which for nearly 50 years has protected the right to abortion. Read the full decision here.

What happens next?: The legality of abortion will be left to individual states. That likely will mean 52 percent of women of childbearing age would face new abortion limits. Thirteen states with “trigger bans” will ban abortion within 30 days. Several other states where recent antiabortion legislation has been blocked by the courts are expected to act next.

State legislation: As Republican-led states move to restrict abortion, The Post is tracking legislation across the country on 15-week bans, Texas-style bans, trigger laws and abortion pill bans, as well as Democratic-dominated states that are moving to protect abortion rights enshrined in Roe v. Wade.

How our readers feel: In the hours that followed the ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Washington Post readers responded in droves to a callout asking how they felt — and why.