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The Dark Womb - God and Reproductive Loss

Updated: Sep 13, 2023

The Dark Womb - God and Reproductive Loss

What ‘in the name of God’ can you say to someone who has had a miscarriage? Can you honestly tell them it’s all part of God’s plan?

And what does the experience of having a miscarriage or other reproductive loss, have to say to our images of God?

These questions are explored in a new book, ‘Dark Womb, Re-conceiving Theology through Reproductive Loss’, due to be published later this month. It’s written by Dr Karen O’Donnell Programme Leader for Contemporary Spirituality Studies at Sarum College, an ecumenical centre for Christian Study and Research in Salisbury, England. Even though miscarriage has always been a common experience for woman – with 1 in 5 pregnancies currently ending in miscarriage- this is the first academic theological investigation into what that experience to say to our understanding of God.

I heard more about her work at a webinar ‘Thinking Theologically on Reproductive Loss’, last week. As someone who did struggle with infertility but never had a miscarriage, and who now has 3 kids, I felt something of an interloper. I had the distinctly odd experience of being heartened and relieved to find my experience of several failed IVF cycles meant I was included in those who had had an experience of reproductive loss. In Karen’s book, the term reproductive loss includes this experience in addition to miscarriage, along with stillbirth and ectopic pregnancy.

Why should we care what reproductive loss has to say about God? It may make no difference for those clear they don’t believe in God. But for those who still believe in some sort of God - which a Eurobarometer poll in 2010 estimated was approximately 70%o of people in Ireland - then any brush with reproductive loss pretty quickly leads into questions about God, and certain Christian understandings of God. Is God really in control of every aspect of our life? What does hope mean in face of experience of multiple reproductive loss?

Karen quoted Serene Jones, a US theologian who has written about trauma, who says, 'Hope deferred makes the heart sick’. People who suffer reproductive loss, particularly those who experience repeated reproductive loss, may have questions about God that go to their core - to their heart, their souls, their bodies. What do these profound losses have to say to Christian notion of hope? What can a Christian say to those for whom the thing their heart most longs for doesn’t happen?

Drawing on her own experience, Karen speaks about encountering a certain toxic form of hope – well-intentioned responses from people, encouraging optimism after she had had another loss, saying such things as ‘at least you know you can get pregnant’. Offering to pray for her. Prayers and petitions rooted in questionable idea of God’s Providence, that God knows and has planned everything that will happen to you.

Her questioning brought her to a greater acceptance of God as mystery, ultimately. And an understanding that we are often asked to sit between hope and hopelessness. Letting go of hope deferred so long it is making our heart sick, and experiencing help support and consolation in that hugely difficult letting go.

The understanding of God, Karen offered was strikingly grounded. It is the hard won result of facing into her own reproductive losses and addressing the questions it stirred in her. It stands in contrast to the somewhat disembodied theology I first encountered at mass as a child, implicit in the oft repeated phrases sometimes intoned by priests in garments, seemingly intended to underline their separation from daily life, ‘May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you always.’

An abdication of responsibility on part of ‘the Church’?

Not addressing questions that reproductive loss is an abdication of responsibility on part of the Church’

This was a position put forwarded by Karen, and no-one on the webinar questioned the implication that ‘the Church’ should be the body that would address questions about God raised by reproductive loss. As one of the only attendees – perhaps the only one- from an Irish Catholic tradition, I realised I was missing a certain shared ecclesial discomfort.

No one seemed to need to clarify what they meant when speaking about ‘the Church’. To distinguish between ‘the Church’ as the ‘people of God' and ‘the Church’ as 'institution'. No one seemed to need to make reference to multiple failings of the institutional Church, particularly in relation to pregnant women and children.

I take a certain amount of discomfort in relation to discussing ‘the Church’ as a given. It seems clear that what Irish Catholics most commonly think of as ‘the Church’ should not take a lead role in this area. The multiple revelations of the appalling treatment of pregnant women, mothers and children in the past by Irish Catholic institutions make any credible leadership on the issue by the institutional church difficult if not impossible.

That and the fact that the leadership is all male.

The absence of women, and particularly those who have experienced reproductive loss, in leadership within the Catholic Church is one of reasons, presumably, that questions about God it throws up have been so little addressed to date.

As flagged above, I have had some experience of reproductive loss. Being in the company of women who have not had the chance to mother children to term, I was acutely conscious of how fortunate I am to be there as a Mum. Getting immersed in struggles that parenting provokes and coming to take it somewhat for granted. I heard fellow participants speak very honestly of a pain I used to know that is ongoing for so many - the challenge of days like Mother's Day. and the child -centred bonanza that is Christmas. The rawness you feel long after a loss, compounded by people's reluctance to mention it.

While not wanting to equate the impact in any way, I was also struck how the other women at the webinar- many of the Anglican- had faith-based roles (curate, theologian, chaplain, course coordinator) that they could take somewhat for granted. As they should do. Something that is less easy to do as a Catholic woman, particularly one who is married.

Karen’s courageous work, which asks striking questions about how we understand God, and lays the ground for informed, compassionate, insightful pastoral responses to reproductive losses, and other suffering, is a great example of what happens when women have access to such roles and opportunities and can draw on their experience to contribute to our collective understanding of God.

To read how this webinar made me wonder whether someone might have been asked before Mary to carry Jesus and not carried that Baby to term.. read here.

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