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Human rights ruling could bust miscarriage stigma

It’s impossible to understand what having a miscarriage feels like for those of us who haven’t experienced it ourselves. But for many women, it’s a traumatic event that stays with them long after. Yet due to uninformed misconceptions about miscarriages, many women endure the experience alone and in silence.

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A recent ruling by Ontario’s Human Rights Tribunal could bust negative misconceptions about miscarriage. The new ruling recognises that miscarriage should sometimes be treated as a disability — this means that in some cases, women who miss work following a miscarriage can’t be penalised by their employers.

The Tribunal ruled that Ontario woman Winnie Mou had been unjustly fired by her employer, as she’d missed work and failed to meet her performance targets while suffering from two disabilities: injuries from falling down and a miscarriage. The Tribunal’s vice chair Jennifer Scott challenged Mou’s employer’s firing of her, ruling that it was “clear from the applicant’s testimony that she continues to experience significant emotional distress from the miscarriage even today.”

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People who haven’t had a miscarriage often fail to understand just how traumatic they can be.

“I wish people knew how much it’s possible to miss a person you have never met, and to mark time by their absence,” one woman told NPR about her experience with miscarriage. “I will always think about how old my baby would be now and what our lives would be like if I hadn’t lost the pregnancy.”

Many of the misconceptions surrounding miscarriage characterise the women who have them negatively. A 2015 survey in the Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology found that miscarriages were misunderstood and stigmatised, especially by men.

Many respondents thought miscarriages were rare (likely because women don’t talk about their miscarriages). While miscarriage is the most common complication of pregnancy, occurring in 15 to 20 percent of pregnancies, over half of survey respondents thought miscarriages only affected five percent of pregnancies.

And over 20 percent of survey respondents believed that the biggest cause of miscarriage was poor lifestyle choices, such as alcohol, tobacco or drugs. In reality though, the vast majority of miscarriages are caused by chromosomal abnormalities.

Many women wrote in to NPR about the shame they felt after their miscarriages: “I felt, and feel, literally broken, and betrayed by my body,” recalled one. “It’s irrational, but there is such a deep shame attached to not being able to carry a baby to term.”

Others recalled feeling alone: “I felt alone until I realised there is this big, secret miscarriage club — one that nobody wants to be a member of — and when I realised it existed, I felt angry that no one told me they had active membership.”

Following Ontario’s groundbreaking ruling, perhaps more women will feel supported enough to share their experiences and break the culture of silence surrounding miscarriage.

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