In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Miscarriage

  • Introduction
  • Historical Perspectives on Miscarriage
  • Social History of Pregnancy
  • Anthropological and Sociological Perspectives on Miscarriage
  • Social and Cultural Analysis of Pregnancy
  • Philosophical and Feminist Perspectives on Miscarriage
  • Psychological and Counseling Perspectives on Miscarriage
  • Audiovisual Resources

Childhood Studies Miscarriage
Lara Freidenfelds
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 January 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0104


Miscarriage is medically defined as a pregnancy loss in approximately the first half of pregnancy (twenty weeks or so), before viability. Historically and popularly, and presently in many non-Western societies, nonviable births up to approximately seven months (thirty weeks) have often been named as miscarriages. Only since the 20th century, and particularly in highly developed countries with low birth rates, have these pregnancy losses been widely regarded as the loss of a baby, rather than as a different kind of loss. This change in meaning of the miscarried embryo or fetus is the result of a broad swath of social, medical, and technological changes, including the rise of prenatal care early in pregnancy; the widespread use of new technologies, such as obstetric ultrasound, home pregnancy tests, and in vitro fertilization (IVF); abortion debates, first in the late 19th century and again in the late 20th century; the rise of contraceptive technology and belief in family limitation and the resulting drop in the birth rate in the 19th and 20th centuries; the reduction of infant and child mortality in the 19th and 20th centuries; the continuous expansion of parenting expectations and responsibilities since the late 18th century; increasing marketplace consumption on behalf of children, babies, and expected babies; the increasing age of mothers at first birth; and the lowering of age of viability with technologically sophisticated neonatal medical care. Much has been written about medical, public health, and psychological aspects of miscarriage. Researchers have considered the causes of miscarriage, how to prevent miscarriage, how to medically and psychologically manage a miscarriage in progress, and the physical and psychological sequelae of miscarriage. Works focusing specifically on miscarriage in the social science and humanities literature are strong but sparse, and much research remains to be done. Historians have examined aspects of miscarriage in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, and anthropologists have researched experiences of miscarriages across several cultures.

Historical Perspectives on Miscarriage

Scholars have begun to document the changing representations and experiences of miscarriage over the past several centuries. Sources are thin for women’s experiences before the 1960s, so historical conclusions are necessarily fairly speculative, though well argued. Pollock 1990 argues that early modern pregnancies were routinely treated as in danger of miscarriage. Jackson 1996 looks at 18th-century British court records to document how women described pregnancy losses in defending themselves against infanticide charges. Withycombe 2010 examines 19th-century medical and personal perspectives. Kastor and Valencius 2008 argues from a close reading of sources from the Lewis and Clark expedition that Sacagawea was treated for a miscarriage en route. Reagan 2003 looks at popular press representations of miscarriage in the 20th-century United States.

  • Jackson, Mark. “‘Something More Than Blood’: Conflicting Accounts of Pregnancy Loss in Eighteenth-Century England.” In The Anthropology of Pregnancy Loss: Comparative Studies in Miscarriage, Stillbirth and Neonatal Death. Edited by Rosanne Cecil, 197–214. Oxford and Washington, DC: Berg, 1996.

    A look at accounts of pregnancy loss by women defending themselves against infanticide charges in court. While the accounts cannot be taken at face value as reports of experience, they illuminate an 18th-century understanding of what miscarriages should look like and are understood to signify.

  • Kastor, Peter J., and Conevery Bolton Valencius. “Sacagawea’s ‘Cold’: Pregnancy and the Written Record of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 82 (2008): 276–310.

    DOI: 10.1353/bhm.0.0007

    Takes the reader through a close reading of sources from the Lewis and Clark expedition journals, showing how a now-cryptic series of entries about Sacagawea was probably intended to describe a miscarriage. Illuminates early-19th-century understandings and representations of reproduction, pregnancy, and the experience of pregnancy loss. Available online by subscription.

  • Pollock, Linda A. “Embarking on a Rough Passage: The Experience of Pregnancy in Early-Modern Society.” In Women as Mothers in Pre-industrial England. Edited by Valerie Fildes, 39–67. London and New York: Routledge, 1990.

    See particularly pp. 49–59. Pollock argues that pregnancies were always seen as in danger of miscarrying, and this framed prenatal advice and practices. She also argues that some miscarriages were induced (i.e., abortions), and practitioners may have regarded early miscarriages as dangerous because they were difficult to differentiate from abortions.

  • Reagan, Leslie J. “From Hazard to Blessing to Tragedy: Representations of Miscarriage in Twentieth-Century America.” Feminist Studies 9.2 (2003): 356–378.

    Article based on thorough review of popular literature, characterizing shifting perspectives on the meaning of miscarriage as American social and political concerns changed. Available online by subscription.

  • Withycombe, Shannon K. “Slipped Away: Pregnancy Loss in Nineteenth-Century America.” PhD diss., University of Wisconsin, 2010.

    A well-organized, well-argued, and well-written doctoral thesis, examining physicians’ writings on miscarriage in the 19th century as well as the few obtainable women’s writings culled from intensive archival research. Contains findings not yet published in peer-reviewed form.

  • Withycombe, Shannon K. “From Women’s Expectations to Scientific Specimens: The Fate of Miscarriage Materials in Nineteenth-Century America.” Social History of Medicine (2015)

    DOI: 10.1093/shm/hku071

    Illuminating, archive-based examination of how 19th-century women and their doctors handled miscarriages, interpreted the meaning of miscarried embryos and fetuses, and together shaped early embryology.

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