Computing Gestational Age in Pregnancy (as a Feminist Issue)

It may come as a surprise to many people that (among healthcare providers) length of pregnancy is not dated in terms of months, but rather in terms of weeks.  Even more unusual to a casual observer is the fact that the first week of pregnancy is defined as beginning at the first day of the menstrual cycle and NOT the day on which the sperm was deposited in the vagina. 

The convention for defining the length of a pregnancy starting from the beginning of the menstrual cycle makes sense for a number of reasons.  The aspect that I would consider all reproductive right advocates to consider is this:

Dating pregnancy by the start of the menstrual cycle correctly reflects that pregnancy is, first and foremost, a process of a woman’s body and not something that is caused by sperm magic.  The presence of sperm is necessary for pregnancy, but the uterine enviromnent has to be right for conception to happen, and that is a function of the woman’s menstrual cycle.  The contents of the uterus at the time of conception will continue to be there for the remainder of the pregnancy and will continue to be important throughout the pregnancy process.  Just because it isn’t part of the zygote/embryo/fetus, doesn’t meant it isn’t part of the pregnancy.  The arrival of sperm is not the absolute ground zero of gestation.

When abortion rights are discussed in terms of weeks of gestational age, I am surprised to see reproductive rights advocates choosing to talk about pregnancy in terms of weeks since the arrival of sperm rather than the woman-centric (and medically standard) weeks since the start of the menstrual cycle. The fact that even many feminists think of pregnancy as the result of a man’s ejaculation rather than a result of any of the equally necessary processes of the woman’s body is a result of patriarchy being so pervasive in our cultural understanding of pregnancy that we will defend it just because no different thought has ever occurred to us.  So… let’s stop that, shall we?

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4 thoughts on “Computing Gestational Age in Pregnancy (as a Feminist Issue)

  1. I’ve never heard this as being about making sperm magical so much as being about the idea thatI could be pregnant now, if between now and my next period some sperm happens, regardless of anything current. It’s a kind of Schrodinger’s cat of pregnancy. I have already heard some conservatives say this means I should not drink, and constantly take prenatal vitamins, and act “pre-pregnant”. I don’t trust laws that could be used to justify that-I can see the creepyness, while knowing that “from the first day of last period” is in fact, medically standard.

  2. I am also alarmed by the idea that all women should act “pre-pregnant” all the time. I think the fact that such a thing would even be suggested reeks of the belief that pregnancy is WHAT WOMEN ARE FOR, and is a laughable concept to anyone who thinks of women as whole, complex people.

    However, that is a totally separate issue from how pregnancy is dated. The earliest that one can know they are pregnant is around the time of the missed period, which is about 4 weeks past the previous period or 2 weeks past conception. No matter how you date the pregnancy, you’re pregnant before you know it, and no matter how many weeks we count back, it doesn’t REALLY make a difference on which weeks your behavior affects the health of the fetus, anyway.

  3. I think the trouble here has to do with access to abortion, particularly in places where you’re forced to wait for an abortion, or where it’s difficult to find a provider who will perform a late term abortion. When I realized I was pregnant last year, I found it immensely frustrating to be told that this way of computing gestational age made me three weeks ‘more pregnant’ than I could possibly have been, given that I wasn’t having regular sex and could point precisely to the sex that had produced the pregnancy; I live in a major urban centre in Canada, but I still had to see a counsellor, wait two weeks, and have a vaginal ultrasound before they would perform my abortion, and those ‘extra’ three weeks of gestational age made things quite complicated when we started talking about whether a medical abortion would be appropriate.

  4. There certainly ARE problems with getting timely abortion access (I really do know about the challenges. Helping women access abortion services is my life’s mission and my livelihood).

    However, where we place the starting line of gestational age doesn’t have any effect on access to abortion or who can get what method of abortion. For example, the standard limit for a medical abortion in the US is 9 weeks gestational age (GA), which is 9 weeks past the last menstrual period (LMP). That guideline is not arbitrary, but rather is research-based and reflects the point at which the medical abortion sees a sharp decline in effectiveness and safety. If we were to define that limit in terms of weeks since the arrival of sperm in the uterus, it would fall at around 7 weeks and would equal the EXACT SAME point in the actual pregnancy and have absolutely no effect on access or on what method of abortion would be available to you on your procedure day.

    And saying “three weeks ‘more pregnant’ than I could possibly have been” falls into the exact same faulty understanding of the process that I am trying to identify in the post. At the time of your abortion, a significant portion of the contents of your uterus that were removed by the doctor was stuff that had been there for about three weeks longer than the embryo/fetus was there, and SHOULD rightly be accounted for when considering the timeline of the pregnancy.

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