Susan J. Demas: I had a painful miscarriage. What happens to women like me in Barrett’s America?

September 27, 2020 8:20 am

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Fourteen years ago, I found myself home from work relatively early and went to (very uncharacteristically) lie down for a few minutes, exhausted from covering the statewide primary election.

I got up to take a shower and felt something rush out of me. When I looked down at the bathroom floor that was covered in blood and tissue, I knew in an instant that I had miscarried.

It was an out-of-body experience, really. I had the odd sensation of looking down as an observer, realizing that yes, I had been pregnant (I was too caught up with work and my toddler to realize I’d been late). And now, quite suddenly, I wasn’t.

After the initial shock, my first thought was that I had to clean up the mess — right away — before my daughter came home from daycare. As I hunted for towels and bleach and started scrubbing the small white tile and the grout, the damned grout, I distinctly remembering thinking that she could never see this. I cleaned the floor before I cleaned up myself.

I called my mother afterward. She had a late-term miscarriage and she talked me down and let me cry for the first time. “You will get through this, but you will never forget it and it’s OK,” she assured me.

She was right. The event that took all of a few seconds did change my life. Within a year, I’d left my job (my boss’ only reaction was to ask if I’d have my Sunday package on time) and I was divorced. Some things can’t be put back together.

On my first solo hiking trip to the California desert two years later, I stopped in the middle of a canyon and just wept. I cried for the child I never even knew I was carrying and was gone. I cried for my then-first grader who lost a sibling she would never know and love and fight with. I cry every year on the anniversary of my miscarriage. I’m crying as I write this now.

This is deeply personal and private grief. I have never written about this in such detail and it was extraordinarily painful to do. I thought about erasing these words dozens of times.

But I feel I have an obligation to share this in light of Donald Trump’s new Supreme Court nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, who conservative groups have complete faith in to dismantle reproductive rights in America and deny people the most basic health care. That she’s been tapped to replace women’s rights champion Ruth Bader Ginsburg is undoubtedly meant to add insult to injury.

Barrett’s quote that abortion is “always immoral” is well-known. There are a lot of theoretical debates right now whether Roe v. Wade survives (with the loudest voices coming from folks who believe they have no skin in the game). But there many ways to ensure that abortion and birth control are only options for the rich and well-connected, even if Chief Justice John Roberts (a highly skilled politician) can persuade justices not to gut Roe completely to shield the court from criticism that it’s a right-wing partisan institution.

U.S. President Donald Trump (L) introduces 7th U.S. Circuit Court Judge Amy Coney Barrett as his nominee to the Supreme Court in the Rose Garden at the White House September 26, 2020 in Washington, DC. With 38 days until the election, Trump tapped Barrett to be his third Supreme Court nominee in just four years and to replace the late Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery on Tuesday. | Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

But fewer people probably know that Barrett signed on to a 2018 dissent for an Indiana law (signed by now-Vice President Mike Pence) that requires the burial of fetal remains in cases of abortion or miscarriage.

“Many states have laws that prescribe how animals’ remains must be handled,” Judge Frank Easterbrook wrote in the dissent Barrett joined. “The panel has held invalid a statute that would be sustained had it concerned the remains of cats or gerbils.”

Now I love animals, but I don’t particularly care to be compared to a rodent. And I cannot imagine going through the trauma of collecting what was left of my dead child and having to go through a twisted burial process.

I think back to that summer evening 14 years ago. Even if there was a law on the books that I knew about — as many people who don’t cover politics for a living probably wouldn’t — would I have been in the right mental space to methodically gather up the goo and stick it in a Tupperware container? Where would I put it so my daughter didn’t see it? Would I throw up as I did it? Would I have known who to call for the burial? How much therapy would I need afterward?

That’s such an unthinkably cruel and invasive thing to demand of women who are going through an incredibly painful loss. That’s not something you demand of people who are considered full members of society with equal rights. That is a punishment for those you consider lesser, unworthy and even immoral.

What’s the end point of such policy? Would women end up being prosecuted after miscarriages? If abortion is illegal, will some women who miscarry be charged under abortion murder laws? (The technical term for miscarriage is “spontaneous abortion,” which will surely confuse some right-wing politicians).

There will always be a chorus of pundits telling you that will never happen, just like they told you Trump would never threaten democracy and announce he might not accept election results.

But we know it can. Indiana also happens to be home to Purvi Patel, who was convicted under the state’s feticide law for inducing her own abortion. In El Salvador, which banned abortion in 1998, more than 140 women have been charged even after they said they had miscarriages.

I never gave birth to another child after my miscarriage. But my story has a happy ending. I remarried and have a wonderful stepson, who I love as my own. But not everyone is so lucky.

Conservatives keep lauding Barrett for being a mother of seven (while weirdly ordering liberals not to mention that fact), but my family is just as valuable as hers. Not all of us are blessed with big families even if we want them. And we certainly don’t deserve to be prosecuted for failing to follow edicts on proper conduct after having miscarriages.

All women deserve the right to make the choices that are right for them, as Barrett has. Sadly, thanks to her appointment, the clock on some of women’s most basic human rights seems about to run out.

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Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas is a 23-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on C-SPAN, MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQ people, the state budget, the economy and more. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 100 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive.