Last week a woman told me that she had a miscarriage in her bathroom. She was terrified. She didn’t know what to do. So she flushed it down the toilet.
A miscarriage is the spontaneous expulsion of a fetus from the womb before it is able to survive on its own. One in five pregnancies ends in miscarriage. Many women don’t know they are miscarrying. Those who know usually suffer grief and sadness, mourning the loss of what could have been . . .
One moment a young mom-to-be is decorating the baby’s room, preparing to welcome a new son or daughter. The next moment, she is giving birth to death.
For some women every period is a failure. The disappointment, the longing, the despair is overwhelming. One woman describes “years and years of monthly miscarriages—a constant cycle of anticipation, devastation, acceptance, and surrender.”
How much is a human life worth? Women spend tens of thousands of dollars on fertility treatments that may still end in miscarriage.
What happens to all these miscarriages?
I asked Mom, a retired psychiatrist. She told me that during her pediatric rotation in medical school, she was called to a premature delivery. When she arrived, the obstetrician had already tossed the miscarriage in the trash. Mom looked down. The tiny body was still moving. Mom tried to save it, but it died.
It seems odd that someone so valuable could be flushed down the toilet or thrown in the trash. But not all miscarriages are discarded. Some are sent to my father.
As a teenager, I worked alongside Dad, a hospital pathologist. We received miscarriage specimens in plastic containers. Each miscarriage was carefully placed on a fine metal strainer in the sink. We turned on the water and rinsed away the membranes, clots, and blood until all that was left was a tiny little rib cage and a couple of femurs. Dad could date and age the little body by the size of the bones. I thought it was amazing.
While most fathers were accompanying their daughters to ballet recitals or soccer matches, I was privileged to participate in an archeological dig with Dad through the remnants of human life. And for me it was all normal—and beautiful.
Raised in a morgue, I spent my childhood accompanying Dad to work. I peeked in on autopsies and examined body parts. But as a young girl I was most intrigued by the babies. They looked like Buddhas. From largest to smallest, they sat cross-legged along one shelf. Floating in jars, they leaned toward me and stared straight through me. And they never blinked. They seemed to know something I didn’t. But who were they? And why were they trapped in jars? And how come I wasn’t inside a jar, too? Dad’s inner-city miscarriage collection still intrigues me. All Philadelphia natives, they were probably Irish Catholic, Puerto Rican, and mostly African American. But none were black, or brown, or white. All blue babies. All race-neutral. Chromosomal defects were the likely cause of demise. Maybe their tender souls weren’t ready for a rough, urban life. God may have had a better destiny for them.
This is the United States of America. In God we trust. So what happens to all these miscarriages? Seems the souls leave the bodies. And the bodies become medical waste.
But not all are lost and forgotten. When Dad retired, he offered me his miscarriage collection. I was honored to be asked to watch over their little bodies rather than have them incinerated as medical waste. But I could not see stuffing all the jars into my carry-on bag and holding up the line at the airport while trying to explain myself. So I kept only one. I made it through airport security with that tiny person in my pocket—a six-week-old calcified embryo about the size of a penny.
Sometimes when I lose sight of the big picture, I hold that tiny person in my hand and I see the whole world.
Pamela L. Wible, M.D. is a family physician and bestselling author of Pet Goats & Pap Smears: 101 Medical Adventures to Open Your Heart & Mind. A portion of this essay excerpted from chapter 95, “Buddha Babies.”