Pregnancy Needs No Qualifier

Peg Johnston

The adjectives we use to describe pregnancy, like unplanned, unwanted, or unintended, don’t help either side of this conflict understand the 3.4 million “unintended” pregnancies that happen each year or why half of end in abortion.

thing that pro choice and pro life people have in common is a concern
about language and finding words to convey our meaning in a discussion
that often seems like two people speaking different languages without
a translator.  How much of our conflict stems from unexamined assumptions based on how we describe the problem? One example is the phrase, “preventing
the need for abortions.” While this is commonly accepted, I believe
that preventing unintended pregnancies is more appropriate, since my
observation is that an unexpected little pink plus sign on the pregnancy
test  is never welcome no matter what the outcome.


in my own writing I have found that I am battling language in an attempt
to talk about pregnancy in a real way. The first word I bumped up against
was the word “unwanted” when paired with pregnancy. On the face
of it, a pregnancy that is terminated is obviously not wanted. Ah, but
sit with a woman and talk about her decision and the word grows more
ill-fitting by the minute. “Oh, I really do want this baby,” they
say and then the “but” drops down and everything changes. Dr. George
Tiller wisely noted that “until you understand the heart of a woman,
nothing about abortion makes any sense at all.” That helps to explain
the words of a woman who writes to her never-to-be-born child, “I
love you with all my heart, and can’t wait for the time when we can
be together.” Clearly, “unwanted” doesn’t tell the whole story.


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next adjective I tangled with was “unintended.” It turns out that
a large percentage of pregnancies are not intended, as in “Honey,
let’s make a baby tonight.”  Likewise, many unintended pregnancies
turn out to be babies with no ill effects due to the lack of foresight
of their parents. So, the word tells us more about our relationship
to birth control than to the outcome of a pregnancy. And there is a
judgmental edge to the word with the implicit next sentence, “Why
weren’t you using birth control?!” No discussion of birth control
failure rates, or cost, or adverse reactions to various methods. 
It goes without saying that the intentionality of the male partner is
rarely on the table for discussion.


all of the same reasons, I wrestled with “unplanned.”  It also
seems to me to be a covert advertisement for Planned Parenthood. “Planned”
and “unplanned” do conjure up contrasting worlds of neat orderly
families with 2.3 children versus chaotic, crazy people with messy lives.
It’s a sort of class thing that makes me want to root for the, uh,
more spontaneous group. And, let’s be honest, there is plenty of chaos
in perfectly planned families.


the real problem with both unintended and unplanned is that sometimes
it’s just not true. It brings to my mind the couple that tried one
last in vitro fertilization and decided three weeks later that the successful
treatment was not welcome. Or the second trimester patient who was happy
about having a baby until her boyfriend died. We want to believe that
our intentions matter, but the truth is, life is uncertain and sometimes
where we end up doesn’t match where we wanted to go.


a while, I favored the word “unexpected” to describe pregnancies
that ended in abortion. It has the same problems as “unintended,”
but it more clearly matches the incredulity women experience when test
after test turns positive. It’s as if we are a pre-cognizant people
who don’t quite get the connection between sexual intercourse and
pregnancy.  Even though “unexpected” captures the element of
shock, it also encourages us to selectively view women as hapless, ignorant,
and most certainly, in denial. It would be equally foolish to call motorcycle
accidents involving young men as “unexpected.”


now, I am wondering what these or any adjectives do for the word pregnancy.
Far from enriching their nouns, as good adjectives should, these serve
to distance the speaker from something quite disturbing and negative.
If intentionality, good planning, awareness, and control (birth control,
impulse control, etc.) are exercised, then only those OTHER women get
pregnant when they don’t want/ intend/ plan/ expect to. The adjectives,
then, are a false reassurance that we will not end up in an abortion


pregnancy adjectives are an illusion of protection for a population
in denial about sex.
As modifiers of a noun they don’t help us much
to understand why there are 3.4 million “unintended” pregnancies
a year or why half of them end in abortion.
The labeling
of “other,” the  implicit “blame the victim” slant reveal
volumes about a culture that is trying to create dyads of good and bad
mothers, life-givers and murderers, good girls and sexually promiscuous
sluts.  If we continue to use these adjectives without examining
this baggage, their use will obscure the fact that every woman has decisions
to make when she discovers she is pregnant.


need to take a collective step back and consider that there is just
pregnancy, feelings about it, and decisions about what’s the best
thing to do. And there are just women, all at different times and situations
in their lives. Most are mothers or will become mothers at some point
in their lives. And their sex lives, adherence to morality, and compliance
with birth control cannot be discerned by the outcome of their pregnancies.
To assume that one kind of woman chooses abortion and another a baby
is simply wrong. To think that women who continue their pregnancies
are always happy about it is wishful.


we can clear the clutter of adjectives from the word pregnancy, perhaps
the choices a woman faces will be clearer to us as a culture. If there
are no good and bad women, wanted or unwanted pregnancies, intended
or unintended results, there is pregnancy, and the significance we attach
to it. From that vantage point, every pregnancy presents a profound
decision within a particular set of circumstances. When we stop distancing
ourselves from the women who choose abortion, we can appreciate that
everyone touched by the state of pregnancy considers life and what kind
of life they want for themselves and their children. If some outcomes
are shamed, and this might include adoption, single motherhood, teen
pregnancy, women with “too many” kids as well as abortion, then
we are missing the rich context of decision-making. It is this context
which will inform our efforts to reduce the number of “unintended”
pregnancies, which would be good news not only to Common Ground but
also to 3.4 million women.

humans, it is our lot to create meaning for ourselves. Given the freedom
and space to do so, women will weave a complex picture of their lives,
the needs of their families, their own goals and hopes into good decisions–without
our adjectives modifying their pregnancies.

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