The language we use to talk about pregnancy and abortion is changing. But not everyone likes the change


From patient waiting rooms to halls of Congress, the language used to talk about reproduction is changing.

In the United States, mainstream institutions such as the American Civil Liberties Union, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and CNN are increasingly opting for gender-neutral terms such as “pregnant people”, “people who have abortions” and “biological parent” in favor of “women” when referring to pregnancy, fertility and abortion.

These terminology changes signal an effort to include transgender and non-binary people who can also become pregnant. But the changes have also provoked backlash — not just from Republican politicians who are openly hostile to LGBTQ people, but also from some cisgender women (women whose gender identity is consistent with their assigned gender in birth) who see themselves as LGBTQ allies and who support abortion. rights.

“We’re not just talking about the same people we were before. We’re expanding the reach,” said Kristen Syrett, associate professor of linguistics at Rutgers University. “And I think that’s where people get more uncomfortable because it’s so different from how we’ve thought about reproductive rights and pregnancy for a long time.”

Language debates can seem arbitrary at a time when so many people no longer have access to abortion services in their home countries. But at the heart of these debates are questions about who is targeted by restrictive laws and policies, who is affected, and who is included in the conversation.

Using inclusive language to talk about abortion recognizes that not only cis women can get pregnant, said Gillian Branstetter, communications strategist at the Women’s Rights Project and the ACLU’s LGBTQ & HIV Project.

Some trans men and non-binary people can also get pregnant, as can cis girls and trans boys. This is also true in the opposite direction: not all women are capable of becoming pregnant. Some cis women struggle with fertility, while trans women don’t have a uterus. Opting for gender-neutral terms such as “people” or “patients” allows for these nuances in ways that simply saying “women” does not.

There is little data on the number of trans and non-binary people who become pregnant and have abortions since the medical systems in the United States consider them to be women. A 2019 study from Rutgers University suggests that up to 30% of trans men experience unplanned pregnancies, and a 2020 study by researchers at the Guttmacher Institute and Planned Parenthood estimated that between 462 and 530 trans and non-trans people binaries had abortions in 2017 (the CDC reports that about 609,000 total abortions were performed that year). As more adults identify as trans or non-binary, experts say these estimates are likely underestimated.

Yet these numbers pale in comparison to the number of cis women accessing reproductive health care – a point often raised by critics of more inclusive terms. Branstetter acknowledged this reality, noting that “99% of people who are going to get pregnant or need birth control or an abortion are women.”

But there is a need to make space for trans and non-binary people precisely because of the significant barriers they face in receiving reproductive care, she added. “It’s important to remember that transgender people don’t have the privilege of pretending we don’t exist.”

Others worry that dropping the term “women” will obscure what they see as the driver of attacks on abortion rights: misogyny.

Carrie Baker, professor of women’s and gender studies at Smith College, considers gender-neutral terms such as “pregnant” to be inaccurate and imprecise. In theory, she said, “people” also includes cisgender men, whose bodies are unaffected by abortion restrictions.

Baker said she recognizes the importance of being inclusive and tries to reference in her writing where possible the different groups that are affected by abortion restrictions. But because she sees cisgender women as the primary targets of abortion bans, she said she makes it a point to focus on women.

Failure to do so, Baker said, erases the sexism underlying laws that seek to exert control over women’s bodies.

“Pregnant people” does not say who we are talking about. It gives the impression that (pregnancy) is a non-gender phenomenon or a gender-neutral phenomenon,” she added. “I believe banning abortion is driven by gender discrimination and biases against women and cisgender women, or simply femininity.”

As some abortion-rights proponents now look to the Equal Rights Amendment to establish a constitutional right to abortion, Baker said there is a need to be explicit about the role of sexism in abortion restrictions to challenge these laws. Doing this effectively, she says, means appointing women.

“I think we need to talk about it or we’re basically doing what the right is doing, which is trying to erase the significance of the discriminatory impact of abortion bans,” Baker said.

Some have gone so far as to suggest that women as a class are being erased. Earlier this year, New York Times opinion columnist Pamela Paul denounced the use of terms such as “pregnant people” in an article, writing that “it’s not just a matter of semantics; it’s also a matter of hurt feelings, an affront to our very sense of ourselves. Atlantic’s Helen Lewis accused the left of “declaring war on saying ‘women'”.

“By substituting people for women, we lose the ability to talk about women as a class. We dismantle them into pieces, into functions, into commodities,” she explained.

Syrett, the Rutgers University linguist, understands where these anxieties come from, but encourages people to think about what they’re signaling with their word choices.

“It seems natural for some people to (feel) that it takes something away from them or maybe it doesn’t honor some of what they’ve associated with femininity for so long,” she said. . “This is an opportunity for everyone, regardless of their stance on reproductive issues or their own experience, to step back and ask themselves what it means to talk about ‘women’ versus ‘ women’ versus ‘persons capable of reproduction’.

For the ACLU’s Branstetter, claims that women are erased are overblown.

Progressive organizations opt for terms such as “pregnant people” in their own public messaging campaigns, but no one is forcing women to stop describing themselves as such, she said. Additionally, the word “women” continues to be at the center of many national conversations about abortion – from the Women’s Health Protection Act that sought to codify Roe v. Wade to the Supreme Court decision Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization which canceled it.

“I think the disappearance of the word ‘woman’ is greatly exaggerated,” Branstetter said. “And I don’t think there’s any harm in making room for the many people who need that care who aren’t women.”

Proponents of more inclusive terms also argue that such debates present a false dichotomy.

Oliver Hall, director of trans health for the Kentucky Health Justice Network, said critics of terms like “pregnant people” miss the ways in which trans and non-binary people are also hurt by misogyny. Acknowledging what drives abortion restrictions and making room for trans and non-binary people are not mutually exclusive, they added.

“I think people feel like not just saying ‘women’ means we can’t talk about the role that misogyny plays in these laws,” Hall said. “But I think it also does a disservice to trans people who are also affected not only by these laws, but by misogyny as a whole.”

Including trans and non-binary people in the fight for abortion rights doesn’t mean taking anything away from cisgender women, Hall said. On the contrary, a more inclusive coalition has the potential to strengthen the abortion rights movement.

At the heart of the abortion ban is a desire to maintain traditional gender roles, Branstetter said, comparing it to attempts to ban gender-affirming care.

“What the effort to ban abortion and the effort to erase transgender people from public life have in common is the application of a very strict gender binary based on the exploitation of the reproductive labor,” she said. “It’s a harder story to tell than ‘They do it because they hate women.’ But it’s no longer true.

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