‘The moment I saw ‘habitual aborter’ on my medical chart, my breath was knocked out of me.’: Woman grieving pregnancy loss urges for updated terminology

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Words matter. They do hurt. They can contribute to trauma. They can be triggering.
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This is not political, friends. My concern with the words we use to describe women’s losses has nothing to do with whether someone is pro-life or pro-choice. It has to do with the emotional impact our words have on someone experiencing trauma.
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When I saw the words “habitual aborter” written on my medical chart, I felt the world begin to implode around me. The claustrophobia of that tiny room in the doctor’s office set in, the walls began to feel closer, the ceiling lower, and yet somehow, the other person in the room felt infinitely further away.

Blonde woman looking serious holds a sign that reads "I'm a 'habitual aborter'"
Courtesy of Katy Huie Harrison

“Abortion” has become such a loaded word, but did you know it’s a recent understanding of it?

“Abortion,” as a medical term, “derives from the Latin aboriri—to miscarry.” Etymologically, the words “miscarriage” and “abortion” are essentially the same.

But to the layperson, “abortion” refers to the elective termination of a pregnancy.

Regardless of political beliefs about abortion rights, the use of this word to describe mothers grieving the loss of wanted pregnancies is harmful. Grieving mothers are labeled with emotionally insensitive, outdated language that is at odds with their experiences.

The moment I saw “habitual aborter” on my medical chart, it was like the doctor was outside of the room somehow, on the other side of the enclosing wall, as if she could not possibly inhabit the same space as me, a space she so little understood.

This was my experience. This is how at odds our words for pregnancy loss are with my experience of grief.
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I was luckier than many women in these situations, as I had a kind, empathetic doctor who preemptively warned me about the words I’d see on my chart. She understood I would feel like I was somehow to blame for repeatedly losing pregnancies I desperately wanted and assured me that was untrue.

I was forewarned. And even still, my breath was knocked out of me as I felt small, alone, misunderstood, and wronged.

Perhaps the problem is we use this politicized word in a medical setting. Perhaps it’s that what was once objective medical terminology has now been politicized.

But where the problem originated is less important for the lived experience of miscarrying mothers. Grieving mothers deserve medical care that makes them feel truly cared for.

Woman looking solemn holds up sign that reads "4 wanted pregnancies lost"
Courtesy of Katy Huie Harrison

What Can We Do?

1. Talk about it. We can’t complain on social media and immediately change medical language that’s developed throughout history, but if we talk about the problem – publicly, to our family, to our care providers – then maybe, over time, we can make a change to honor the sensitivity grieving families deserve.

2. Acknowledge that words matter. Choose your words carefully and hold others to a standard that does the same. Understand that words and phrases that feel authentic to one person may not to another.

3. Share this post. Tag your friends, family, and care providers. Let people know if you’ve had an experience that doesn’t match the language used.

4. Support movements to make important change, and lend your voice when you’re comfortable.

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by author, speaker Katy Huie Harrison, PhD, of Atlanta, GA. After enduring recurrent miscarriage, she founded Undefining Motherhood to support women through all stages of their fertilitypregnancy, and parenting journeys. She is author of a popular pregnancy planner and a miscarriage journal. Her work has been featured in places such as Romper and CNN’s Headline News. Follow her on Instagram. Submit your own story here and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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