Miscarriages Are Up To 10 Times More Common Than Most Americans Think: Survey

Ultrasound scan of pregnant woman
Many Americans, especially men, are in the dark when it comes to miscarriages. Photo Courtesy of Shutterstock

For many of us, the idea of wading into a discussion about the human reproductive process is no more pleasant than dumping a bucket of sliced lemons onto a paper cut, and likely just as productive.

With ongoing cultural and legal battles surrounding the legitimacy of contraception and abortion in America, it’s all too easy to shy away from broaching these controversial topics. But so often that reluctance can turn into an abject ignorance about how pregnancy works in the first place. According to a study published earlier this May in Obstetrics & Gynecology, this ignorance equally applies to our perceptions of how often and why miscarriages occur. Worse still, these misconceptions about miscarriages might create an unneeded source of guilt for women who suffer them.

Conducting an online survey of more than 1,000 people aged 18 to 69 across 49 states, the authors found that myths about the frequency of a miscarriage were common. Fifty-five percent of survey takers believed that miscarriages were rare, happening in less than five percent of pregnancies, with fully 10 percent believing they happened less than two percent of the time. Yet, miscarriages actually happen around 15 to 20 percent of the time.

Similarly, commonly believed and inaccurate causes of miscarriage included a stressful event (76 percent), lifting heavy objects (64 percent), previously using long-term contraception like intrauterine devices (28 percent), or oral contraception (22 percent). While some of these beliefs could be chalked to enduring media tropes, the latter ones might have a more insidious origin to them. In particular, the idea that intrauterine devices (IUDs) can cause future difficulties with pregnancy seems eerily familiar to recorded statements presented by crisis pregnancy centers run by anti-abortion advocates. As the Mayo Clinic explains, miscarriages are almost always tied to genetic mutations or medical conditions that arise spontaneously, and not through the fault of either parent.

While there are those who purposefully spread misinformation about pregnancy and contraception, the authors note that much of the myths they found in their study can be linked to a general hesitance to openly talk about miscarriage. "Because it's such a taboo subject, you don't see advocacy for it, you don't see these support groups, you don't see people lobbying Congress to get more funding," study author and director of the Program for Early and Recurrent Pregnancy Loss at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Montefiore Health System in New York City Dr. Zav Williams told LiveScience. This breakdown in communication was particularly apparent among men, who believed that lifestyle choices contributed to a miscarriage, and that miscarriages were rare, twice as often as women did.

These perceptions might partly explain the guilt and isolation that many who personally experienced miscarriage (15 percent) reported. Forty-seven percent felt guilty after the miscarriage, 41 percent that they must have done something wrong, and 28 percent felt outright ashamed. But many also felt a sense of a relief once they knew their experience wasn’t unusual, with nearly half of people feeling less lonely upon hearing from a friend who had gone through miscarriage too. And nearly 90 percent of all people replied that they would feel better knowing the cause of a miscarriage, even if they couldn’t have prevented it.

By creating a safe, informative space to talk about the realities of miscarriage, the authors conclude that health providers can better provide the support that many women might need. And it appears that for the rest of us, especially men, taking the opportunity to step out of the shadows and inform ourselves might make a better, more fruitful, conversation about women’s bodies. 

Source: Bardos J, Hercz D, Friedenthal J, et al. A National Survey on Public Perceptions of Miscarriage. Obestetrics & Gynecology. 2015.

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