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Support group aims to break silence on miscarriages in France

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FOCUS © FRANCE 24

In France, an estimated 200,000 miscarriages take place each year. Despite being the most common reason women visit emergency gynaecology services, silence reigns when it comes to discussing miscarriage while medical staff sometimes lack the time and training to direct women towards psychological support. FRANCE 24 observed a support group, ran by the charity Agapa, for women who were left feeling confused and isolated after their pregnancies ended abruptly.

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Conventional wisdom has it that women are discouraged from discussing their pregnancies with their entourage and employer before reaching three months, which marks the point when the risk of miscarriage reduces.

Marie-Hélène Lahaye, a legal expert and blogger on pregnancy and childbirth, argues that because their brief pregnancies never existed in the public sphere, it is difficult for women to feel legitimate in grieving when they end.

She also believes that the silence surrounding miscarriages has its roots in the sexist idea that "women shouldn't bother men with anything that damages their image as a sexual objects. We don't speak about periods, vaginal discharge, menopause. We don't talk about anything intimate that could create a displeasing image of ourselves."

Staying silent

Annie K. tells FRANCE 24 that she "brushed what happened under the carpet" without realising she needed to mentally process the two miscarriages she experienced in 2016. Four years later, when France was in lockdown because of Covid-19, she came close to a breakdown and sought psychological support from the French charity Agapa.

"After keeping it to ourselves," says Maud C., "my husband and I ended up telling a group of friends because they could see something was wrong. We discovered several had had miscarriages too, but none of us had previously talked about it. That’s how common it is."

Inadequate bedside manner

After Margaux T. was operated on following an ectopic pregnancy, she woke up in the hospital’s recovery room next to a newborn baby who had just been delivered by C-section. "It's a problem that births and miscarriages are taken care of in the same hospital departments. It’s very distressing for a woman who has just had a miscarriage to hear someone giving birth right next door."

For Ingrid B., another member of the support group, the physical and emotional pain began when she was "brutally" informed by hospital staff that she had miscarried, which preceded an operation to remove the embryo. "Right then, I didn’t feel a thing. Just emptiness." She believes the hospital staff should have been more sensitive to her ordeal or at least have suggested she benefit from professional psychological support.

Professor Thierry Harvey, head of the Diaconesses Maternity Ward in Paris, tells FRANCE 24 he is well aware of the problem. "A woman who has just had a miscarriage needs to be spoken to in a considerate and humane way," he says. "But at 4 o'clock in the morning, when the junior doctor is working like crazy, after dealing with a delivery using forceps, a haemorrhage and two C-sections, it’s not easy. We're short-staffed in maternity wards. And there's a problem in training."

Professor Harvey applauds charities like Agapa which attempt to fill the gap in training at medical schools by offering classes to hospital staff on how to inform and assist women who have had a miscarriage. He adds: "As the older generation in the medical profession, it’s up to us to mentor younger doctors."

Knowing how to grieve

In France, if a foetus dies weighing more than 500g or after 22 weeks, parents are able to officially record a name and hold a funeral. Between 15 and 22 weeks, this is optional. The weeks are calculated based on the first day of the woman's last period, rather than the fourteenth day in her cycle, which can also be used to determine the length of pregnancy.  

The women in the support group say that some couples want to grieve early miscarriages. "We needed for them to exist in some way, so that we could grieve," says Maud J., who laid two plaques at the Sainte-Beaume Sanctuary in the south of France. After their miscarriages, Ingrid B. and Maud C. began wearing jewellery engraved with the first names they had chosen.

At the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, a memorial exists for those who would like to lay flowers, photos or any other significant objects.

Not everyone wishes to grieve in this way. Above all, the women in the support group feel there is a crucial need to break the silence that shrouds miscarriages. Margaux T. has created a discussion forum and started a small company, Rebirth. Maud J. has written a book, Donne-moi des fils ou je meurs ("Give me children or I die") based on her own and other women's miscarriages.

They hope that opening up about their experiences will not only help other women going through similar ordeals, but also family and friends who, if better informed, could offer valuable support.

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