Pregnancy loss: Lesbian and bisexual womens’ experience of loss

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What is it like to lose a child during pregnancy, childbirth or early on after the child’s birth? In this post, Pink Families explores this sensitive yet important topic.

How common is pregnancy loss

Unfortunately, many people experience loss during pregnancy. 2-3% of confirmed pregnancies end with a miscarriage in the early stages of pregnancy. Up to as many as 50% of pregnancies end in miscarriage at a later point during pregnancy.

Some people are at higher risk of pregnancy loss. For example, in the US non-white women teenagers and those aged over 35 years are at a higher risk of miscarrying. Unmarried women and those who are having multiple deliveries also have an increased risk of losing a baby during pregnancy, childbirth or within the first month of the child’s birth.

How many lesbian and bisexual women experience pregnancy loss?

Pregnancy loss is an often overlooked area for lesbian and bisexual women. Nevertheless, one study compared miscarriage rates between lesbian couples and heterosexual women. Their study identified a 5% rate of miscarriage for lesbian couples and a 35% rate of miscarriage for heterosexual women.

The study was conducted with a relatively small number of women and so it isn’t by any means representative of how often lesbian women will miscarry. However, it does highlight some of the differences between the intensity of the fertility problems that heterosexual women who receive fertility treatment may experience as compared to lesbian women who receive fertility treatment.

What is like to experience pregnancy loss?

An online survey completed a few years ago can help us understand some of the experiences that lesbian and bisexual women may have when it comes to pregnancy loss.

60 women participated in the survey. The women who participated were living in the UK, the US, Canada and Australia.

Most had experienced an early miscarriage. That is, they had miscarried before or up to the first 3 weeks of pregnancy. A much smaller number had experienced a late miscarriage (4-24 weeks), a still birth (24+ weeks) or neonatal death of their newborn baby. A neonatal death is when the baby dies within 28 weeks of their life.

The research identified three main themes that characterized the experiences of the women that participated in the survey.

Lengthy time and large emotional investment

The findings of the study showed that the women had invested a great deal of time and effort into getting pregnant and this, in part, made it difficult to separate out their feelings of loss with the process of trying to get pregnant.

The women shared that in order to understand their feelings of loss people needed to also understand how difficult it was to conceive in the first place. They highlighted the differences in the amount of effort and time it takes for lesbian and bisexual women to get pregnant as compared to heterosexual women who are in a relationship.

The lengthy investment of energy and time was illustrated by some of the women who shared their stories. For example, one participant shared that it had taken years to decide to have a child with her partner, and then they had to approach their donor, and only then could they even start to think about getting pregnant or going through fertility treatment.

Amplification of loss

The findings showed that the emotional investment that it took for these women to get pregnant in the first place often led to an amplification of loss when the death occurred. Most of the women shared that the loss was significant or very significant.

Their feelings of loss also persisted for a long period of time. For example, some of the women only started to “feel less raw” after 8 months. Admittedly, the intense feelings of loss for some didn’t persist for that long. But at the same time, one of the women shared that her feelings of loss would never go away.

Heterosexism, grief and bereavement

The third main finding related to experiences of heterosexism when receiving healthcare and how this impacted upon the women. Although many of the women had good experiences of care from the healthcare professionals, a number did not.

For example, healthcare professionals sometimes found it hard to understand why the non-biological mother would experience feelings of loss. These professionals were therefore unable to support both partners in their grief.

Also, some of the other women shared that sometimes the non-biological partner was disregarded by healthcare professionals when it came to anything to do with funeral arrangements for the baby or anything to do with the miscarriage.

Supporting both partners and seeking help

There are comparisons to be made between the feelings of loss that lesbian women and bisexual women experience with the feelings that heterosexual women experience due to pregnancy loss. Pregnancy loss, for example, may involve physical and psychological distress for all women regardless of gender or sexual orientation. It can be a difficult and emotional time for anyone.

However, even though there are similarities there are also differences. One of the main differences stems from the increased effort it takes for lesbian women, for example, to get pregnant. This means a closer comparison of the loss experienced by lesbian and bisexual women (in same-sex relationships) may be a comparison with a heterosexual woman who requires fertility treatment.

Although this comparison may be more relevant, it is unlikely that the partner of a heterosexual woman would be disregarded by healthcare professionals. This aspect of exclusion is still therefore different.

Although losing a baby is hard for any prospective parent many of us cope with the feelings of loss adequately. However, there are sometimes times when extra support may be needed. Seeking bereavement support from a suitably qualified and experienced professional may help in these scenarios. There are many national groups that offer support. This is the case in the US, in the UK and in other countries.

References

Peel E. Pregnancy Loss in Lesbian and Bisexual Women: An Online Survey of Experiences. Human Reproduction 2010;25(3):721-727.

In this video a bereavement facilitator from the UK called Jenni Thomas (OBE) discusses how common miscarriage is. Plus, a male and female couple share their feelings about their miscarriage experience.

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