What did I do wrong? That’s often the first thought a woman has when she experiences a miscarriage.
Recently, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex fed into that damaging impulse: the one that tells women that they are somehow responsible for the viability of their pregnancy.
In the Netflix series “Harry & Meghan,” Prince Harry spoke about his wife Meghan Markle’s stress and sleeplessness, which he blamed on the couple’s fight with the British tabloid Daily Mail.
“I believe my wife suffered a miscarriage because of what the Mail did. I watched the whole thing,” Harry said in the documentary.
“Now do we absolutely know that the miscarriage was created caused by that? Of course, we don’t,” he added. “(But) bearing in mind the stress that caused the lack of sleep, and the timing of the pregnancy, how many weeks in she was, I can say from what I saw, that miscarriage was created by what they were trying to do to her.”
That’s one point of view. But it might not be accurate.
In her best-selling, data-informed book on pregnancy “Expecting Better,” Emily Oster makes clear that 90% of miscarriages are caused by chromosomal problems that are present at fertilization.
And older women, Oster explains, are more likely to miscarry. How much more likely? For women under 20, the miscarriage rate is just 4.4%. For women over 35 (which is how old Markle was during this pregnancy), the rate is almost 19%.
As Oster puts it, “You might wonder if there’s anything you can do (other than getting pregnant at 20 rather than at 35!). The answer is probably not.”
While stress can be a contributing factor in miscarriage according to some research, it’s important to classify the level of stress appropriately. We aren’t talking about the stress that celebrities experience at the hands of tabloids, or even the family drama that surrounded Markle’s battle with the Mail. Instead, we’re talking about literal war zone levels of stress.
Israeli research into miscarriage rates in Sderot, a border town that is a frequent target of missile attacks, indicated “that exposure to rocket attacks increased the risk of spontaneous abortion by 59%, compared to women not experiencing this stress during or before pregnancy (6% in Sderot, compared with 4.7% in Kiryat Gat).” Even in an actual war zone scenario, this is not a significant increase in risk.
No doubt, the past few years have been a trying and emotional time for Harry and his wife, but that fact likely has no bearing on Markle’s ability to carry a healthy pregnancy to term.
The message that outside forces like stress and lack of sleep contributes to miscarriage isn’t just wrong on its face, but it’s also a toxic one amid a societal shift to destigmatize miscarriages and to comfort women who experience them. We should be telling women the truth: that they did nothing wrong, that miscarriage is a common and blameless tragedy. Instead, the duke and duchess set us back with the inaccurate idea that women bear responsibility and culpability for the viability of their unborn children.
Dr. Whitney Morgan, an American Academy of Pediatrics fellow and a board-certified pediatrician in Texas, told me about the self-blame women often subject themselves to in other facets of motherhood. “I see the same thing almost daily with new mothers who struggle to breastfeed or who feel that they failed to give birth properly because they experienced a life-saving C-section.”
The emotional toll of guilt is one of the most difficult parts of navigating motherhood, and has always been. Any mother can easily rattle off all the mistakes she made that she now carries guilt over. They range from the benign — “I banged my baby’s head while putting him into his car seat” — to “I exploded at my child in a fit of hormonal rage” and “I left a knife accessible on the counter and my toddler needed stitches as a result.” There are any number of things we beat ourselves up about, and it makes motherhood sometimes feel like we’re walking through a minefield where any misstep can lead to lifelong suffering and trauma.
Influence that comes with celebrity comes with responsibility, and that influence should be wielded with care. That’s not what happened in the case of the duke and duchess of Sussex and their criticism of British tabloid culture. Their comments regarding Markle’s miscarriage weren’t just inaccurate, but damaging to women and our cultural conversations about pregnancy loss as well.
Bethany Mandel is a contributing writer for Deseret News. She is a home-schooling mother of six and a widely published writer on politics, culture and Judaism. She is an editor for the children’s book series “Heroes of Liberty.”