“Nine months of inconvenience.”

In the
abortion debate, sometimes people describe pregnancy as “nine months of
inconvenience” or a “temporary donation of the uterus” or other similar terms.
Usually they use these descriptions because they are trying to show that,
relative to abortion, unwanted pregnancy is not a very severe situation to
I do agree
that abortion (in which a human life is taken) is much more severe than a healthy
pregnancy (in which a woman’s body is drastically affected). Even so, I don’t
like it when people use descriptions like “temporary donation of the uterus” because
such descriptions belittle pregnancy, underplaying how physically and
emotionally difficult the process can be. Just because abortion is worse doesn’t mean pregnancy isn’t a big deal. The process can be difficult even for
planned, healthy pregnancies, much less unplanned or medically complicated ones.
Below I
describe how even healthy pregnancies affect basically every major body system.
I’m only describing issues common in healthy pregnancies; I’m leaving out the
more severe but less common pregnancy risks, such as gestational diabetes,
pre-eclampsia, hyperemesis gravidarum, etc. Some pregnancies are much more
dangerous and debilitating than others. We can talk about how the more severe
situations compare to abortion, but my point in this blog post is to illustrate
that even healthy pregnancies involve a good deal more than simply “donating
the uterus.”
Integumentary System – The skin
stretches to accommodate the growing fetus. Many women experience acne, darkened
blotches of skin on the face (“melasma”), and itchy skin, especially around the
abdomen. Many women lose chunks of their hair or start growing more hair in
unusual places (face, arms, legs, or back). Some women experience increased
nail brittleness, breakage, and grooves. Many women end up sweating more as their
core body temperature increases and their increased weight makes everyday
activities more difficult. Postpartum, many women sweat extensively as their
bodies try to get rid of the fluids built up during the pregnancy. Both the
physical expansion of the uterus and the hormonal changes that affect skin
elasticity can cause permanent stretch marks.
Skeletal System – The bones carry more
and more weight as the pregnancy progresses. If the fetus does not get enough
calcium during the pregnancy, she starts leeching calcium from the woman’s
bones, increasing the woman’s risk of osteoporosis and related problems. The expanding
uterus compresses the ribs, causing rib pain later in pregnancy.
Nervous System – There are many
pregnancy issues that can affect the nerves. Women can get pregnancy-induced
carpal tunnel syndrome as fluids build up and press on the nerves in the wrists
leading to numb or sore fingers and thumbs, sometimes to the point where it’s
difficult for a woman to use her hands. Many women get sciatica as the extra
weight, fluids, and the baby herself press against the sciatic nerve, causing
sharp shooting pains down the legs. Some women also experience nearsightedness
and an increase in intraocular pressure.
Cardiovascular System – A woman’s blood
supply can increase
in volume by almost 50%
as she provides nutrients to the fetus. The
increase in blood increases stress on her heart. By the 2nd
trimester, the woman’s resting heart rate is 30%
than her non-pregnant rate. Pregnancy hormones can decrease blood
vessel tone, making it more difficult to get blood to the brain and central
nervous system and increasing the chances of dizziness or perhaps even loss of
consciousness. Women more than 24 weeks pregnant are advised against lying on
their backs because of the pressure on the vena cava – the large blood vessel
leading from the lower body to the heart. This increased pressure can make it
difficult for blood to flow to and from the heart. The enlarged uterus can also
interfere with blood returning to the heart, which makes swelling in the legs
and feet (edema) common. Pregnant women also have an increased risk of swollen
blood vessels in the rectal area (hemorrhoids), which can be itchy and painful.
The increased blood supply can also put more pressure on the more delicate
vessels in the woman’s nose, causing nosebleeds.
Endocrine System – Pregnant women
experience major increases in progesterone and especially estrogen. The
estrogen increase may be why women experience nausea and vomiting in the first
trimester (or, in some cases, for the duration of the pregnancy). Increased
estrogen also makes it easier for higher levels of yeast to grow, increasing
the woman’s chances of a yeast infection. Estrogen levels may also be the cause
of restless leg syndrome, an “itching,” “burning,” or “creepy-crawly” feeling
that gives pregnant women an overwhelming urge to move their legs, making sleep
difficult. The progesterone increase causes a loosening of ligaments or joints
throughout the body. Hormonal changes are also thought to be responsible for
the “baby blues,” a collection of symptoms involving irritability, anxiety, and
sadness (but not full-blown postpartum depression) that the majority of women
experience in the first few weeks after giving birth.
Muscular System – Many women feel
stitch-like pains along their abdomens as the uterus expands. Meanwhile, the
increase in progesterone causes a loosening of ligaments throughout the body,
which can decrease women’s grasping reflexes and general coordination. The
loose ligaments and the woman’s rapidly changing center-of-gravity are two
reasons doctors believe pregnant women are at an increased risk of tripping or
falling and recommend women avoid standing on stools or ladders or the like.
Many women experience intense leg cramps, especially at night, as the pregnancy
progresses. In the later parts of the pregnancy the lower abdominal muscles can
feel pulled from the extra weight. Postpartum the abdomen is usually sore and
tender as the woman’s body starts to take back its shape.
Respiratory System – Many women
struggle to catch their breath as the fetus pushes up against the diaphragm,
leaving less room for the lungs to expand. Additionally, the higher levels of
progesterone signal the brain to lower the levels of carbon dioxide in the
blood; pregnant women breathe slightly faster to exhale more carbon dioxide.
And because the heart is pumping more blood, the lining of the airways receives
more blood and swells a bit, which can lead to stuffy noses and possibly
blocked Eustachian tubes (tubes connecting ear and nose).
Excretory System – As the fetus grows,
the uterus takes up more and more space, leaving less room for other major
organs such as the bladder. The bladder’s compression, along with the body’s general
increase in blood supply and other fluids, causes women to need to urinate more
and more frequently. If a woman tries not to use the bathroom so often, she has
an increased risk of urinary tract infections. Many women also experience
incontinence during pregnancy.
Reproductive System – The woman’s
uterus expands extensively (obviously). Labor may cause tears in the woman’s cervix or
vagina, and postpartum she experiences a lot of bleeding and cramping as her
uterus contracts back to its non-pregnant state. The woman’s breasts are often tender
and sore, sometimes throbbing, as they increase in size to prepare for milk
production. Near the end of the pregnancy and for awhile after giving birth,
she may experience “leakage” of colostrum, a thick, yellowish precursor to the
milk she will produce. She also needs to keep an eye on clogged milk ducts in
case they don’t resolve themselves.
Digestive System – Most women endure
nausea and vomiting in the first trimester, although for some women these
problems last for the whole pregnancy. Hormonal changes increase gum swelling,
tenderness, and bleeding. In some cases women produce excess saliva, so much so
that they need to spit regularly (swallowing spit can increase nausea).
Meanwhile, as the fetus grows, the uterus pushes against the diaphragm which pushes
against the stomach, making acid reflux more common. Plus increases in progesterone
cause muscles, including the esophagus, to relax, which can make it difficult
to keep food flowing in the correct direction, leading to heartburn and acid
reflux as well. The intestines also have more limited room than before, and the
change in space and the increased relaxation can lead to slow and improper
digestion, causing constipation.
I think we
tend to be somewhat dismissive of the levels of frustration and discomfort women feel with months of these symptoms, because we know these symptoms are
normal and are part of a very common bodily process meant to result in a newborn baby. But imagine instead if all the issues I describe here were symptoms of some sort
of illness, rather than symptoms of pregnancy. How would you react to a person
going through most (or all) of the above in that case? I doubt we’d glibly summarize
such an illness as “nine months of inconvenience.”

Of course
pregnancy isn’t an illness. It even has some long-term health benefits. But it
still can be a very trying situation, even for women with planned, wanted
pregnancies. Please keep that in mind as you talk about pregnancy in the context of the abortion debate–or in any context, really.

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