Two Cultures, Two Ways of Coping with Miscarriages

"Culture is any learned behavior passed down from one generation to the next."  At least, that was "culture" according to my beloved professor of anthropology.  He was an older man with white hair who smiled and gave us subtle definitions to trip us up.

I'm not sure every anthropologist would accept his sneaky definition of culture. For one thing, it means that anything which is not a behavior is not culture.  And that would exclude songs, books, films, and -- *gasp* -- blogs!

To be precise, the song itself is not culture.  But if it ever becomes a tradition to sing the song, then the behavior of singing the song is culture. The tradition of caroling at this time of year is culture. This blog is not part of your culture. But if you encourage your children to read this blog, then the act of reading this blog becomes part of your culture.

Sneaky, sneaky, eh?  Long time readers will not be surprised to learn I am so slow witted I failed to fully grasp that meaning of "culture" until well after the final exams were over.

My professor had a profound and trenchant reason for his definition.  Unfortunately, I have long ago forgotten what that profound and trenchant reason was.  Yet, I still remember discovering it was very difficult to pick up women in an anthropology class because very few people took anthropology in those days.  That's how my mind works: I only remember the important things.

Using a language, such as speaking English, is "a learned behavior passed down from one generation to the next."  And one thing some anthropologists did -- and some still do -- is study how languages influence thinking and behavior.  The field is somewhat controversial, but there seems to be an agreement that languages do have an influence on both thinking and behavior.  The question is now how much of an influence and on which kinds of thoughts and behaviors.

Last night, I was put in mind of the notion that languages influence thinking and behavior when I stumbled across a blog on which a pastor stated his belief that we are human beings from the moment of our conception. He mentioned that he and his wife had experienced several miscarriages. But he had faith he would "meet those children in heaven".

That reminded me of something I'd read while studying anthropology.  If I recall, there is a language spoken in the South Pacific in which there is no word that matches our word, "pregnant".  In our language -- and way of thinking -- a woman is pregnant from the moment of conception until birth. But in the language of at least one South Pacific people, there is no word that covers the whole period of gestation like "pregnancy" does.

Instead, those people speak a language that would require them to use at least three or four words to cover the period of gestation.  There's a word for when a woman first begins to show signs of pregnancy. A word for a little later on in her pregnancy when her belly has swollen up a bit.  And at least one or two other words for later periods.

The interesting thing is the whole language is like that.  There is, for instance, no word for "palm tree".  Instead, you have separate words for various stages in the growth of a palm tree.  There is a word for "sprout".  A word for a young tree.  A word for a fruiting tree.  But no word that has the scope of our word, "palm".

Now, the anthropologist who studied these people noticed that, whenever one of the women miscarried, she seldom if ever showed any signs of loss or remorse.  Nor did anyone in her community.  There were no efforts to console her.  Yet, the same people would rally around anyone who was injured.  It was not, he thought, that they were callous or indifferent to suffering. Instead, it seemed that neither a woman who miscarried, nor her friends and relatives, thought of a miscarriage as the loss of a child.  Consequently, they showed no signs of suffering from it.

The anthropologist pointed out the often close relationship between suffering and expectations. As a rule, when we do not expect something, we do not suffer its loss.  And he concluded the Islanders felt no remorse for a miscarriage because -- until rather late in a woman's pregnancy -- no one expected a child.  After all, their language discouraged thinking of a fetus as a baby or child.

I think you see a tacit recognition of the Islander's psychology in the battles our society wages over whether to call a fetus a "child" or "baby".  One side accuses the other of picking their terms in order to either heighten or lower people's emotional response to abortion. And if that is true -- if it actually works that calling a fetus a "baby" increases people's negative feelings towards abortion, while calling a fetus a "fetus" lowers people's negative feelings towards abortion -- then that should offer us an insight into the Islander's thinking and behavior.     

I am not at all convinced that the Islander's language determines their feelings towards miscarriages. I don't think language is as powerful as that. But I imagine their language could influence their feelings.   
In North America, the miscarriage rate among women who know they are pregnant is about 15% to 20%.  But the real miscarriage rate is probably much higher than that:

Determining the prevalence of miscarriage is difficult. Many miscarriages happen very early in the pregnancy, before a woman may know she is pregnant. Treatment of women with miscarriage at home means medical statistics on miscarriage miss many cases. Prospective studies using very sensitive early pregnancy tests have found that 25% of pregnancies are miscarried by the sixth week LMP (since the woman's Last Menstrual Period). However, other sources reports suggest higher rates. One fact sheet from the University of Ottawa states, "The incidence of spontaneous abortion is estimated to be 50% of all pregnancies, based on the assumption that many pregnancies abort spontaneously with no clinical recognition."

The thought has occurred to me that, given the high rate of natural miscarriages, the Islanders are wise not to expect a pregnancy to result in a baby until rather late in the gestation period.  It seems to provide them with a sort of psychological defense or buffer against the vicissitudes of life. Furthermore, we ourselves might by the same token be unintentionally cruel towards women, for we -- as a culture -- do almost everything in our power to build up and encourage a pregnant woman's expectations of a child.  But I don't see our culture changing anytime soon.

Indeed, if "culture is any learned behavior passed down from one generation to the next", then our own culture seems to be changing in the direction of increasing a pregnant woman's expectations of a child.  And if there is any truth to the notion that expectations can be closely associated with suffering, that trend might have unintended -- and cruel -- consequences.

In the end, it is hard to sort out how much suffering is associated with expectations and how much suffering would occur anyway.  I find it difficult to believe the Island women felt no remorse when they miscarried.  But then, I am not they.  I have only one account of how they responded to such things.  And I have no way of judging its accuracy.

There are so few things we know for certain.


  1. I have no trouble imagining a pretty casual attitude about early miscarriages: imagine you plant a bed with fruiting or flowering plants and some of the early sprouts don't make it; well, drat. But once they're in full bloom or fruit, or even just when the flowers are set, the neighbor's dog digs 'em up -- you want to shoot the mutt and you hate seeing the empty spot where the mature plant was. Something like that.

    But then, I am the kind of person who wishes she had an Abortion Ray Gun that could be deployed at will and firmly believes the world would be better for its frequent use.

    I think that modern medicine has done a lot to enable the idea of life beginning at conception. I've read of societies where people don't even name babies until they've demonstrated enough ruggedness to survive, lest they get attached. In the industrial world we can deploy a ridiculous level of technology to keep alive a fetus expelled at the six-month mark and we call that "viability." It's nuts.

  2. It's interesting, for sure. Let's pretend and say there is a Heaven, and miscarried babies would have the opportunity to meet their would-be parents. Without that sense of child-rearing, how on earth, or how in heaven, would those children actually identify their would-be parents as actual parents? They may was well be strangers for all practical purposes.

    I think that is a sign that our culture is pushing way too hard on the idea that a fetus is a baby.

  3. Sledpress, to add to what you said, I think if more people understood why so many pregnancies naturally end in miscarriages, they would be much less inclined to blame or question themselves when a miscarriage happened. Basically, gestation is an extremely complicated process, involving billions of steps, that only works about the half the time it's tried. In other words, it's a process that has so many steps to it, that it is naturally prone to error. And miscarriages most often occur when the body detects signs that a fetus is not developing properly. There might be other reasons for some miscarriages, but that's the main reason for most. At least, that's how it's been explained to me.

  4. Exactly, Wise Fool! I can think of several things that are questionable about the pastor's notion he's going to meet his "lost children" in heaven. But the one you just raised has got to concern him, if anything can concern him.


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