Well, it’s come to this. A pro-choice feminist has hounded an abortion doctor and advocate on Twitter for using the phrase “pregnant person” instead of “woman” when arguing with people who are against abortion–and with people who thanked Dr. Torres for being inclusive in her language.
There were a couple of reasons given for this hounding. The first being that inclusive language erases women as being the primary recipients of abortions a la “All lives matter”. As Jason points out, that argument has problems.
The second argument given is that using inclusive language when talking about abortion obscures the sexism and misogyny that have pushed the political fight against abortion rights. This is also wrong, but I’ve seen it cropping up more frequently lately. That makes it time to deal with it.
The best formulation of this argument I’ve seen was Katha Pollitt’s in March. In her article, she offered mechanisms by which this erasure could happen rather than just an assertion that the erasure is inherent in word usage. Hers also seems to have been the article that crystallized many feminists’ objections to gender-neutral language around abortion (though some of them go further than Pollitt, who explicitly argues for inclusivity in advertising services). Given that, I’ll address her arguments here.
Maybe in ten years, it will seem perfectly natural to me to talk about abortion in a gender-neutral way. Right now, though, it feels as if abortion language is becoming a bit like French, where one man in a group of no matter how many women means “elles” becomes “ils.”
When this article came out, several people pointed out that English pronouns are not gendered in the same way French pronouns are, meaning we don’t run into this problem in our language. I think that’s missing Pollitt’s point, however. Rather than this being an argument about language, I believe she was referring to the way men are considered the default where gender isn’t specified. Unless we talk specifically about women, we are assumed to be talking about men, even in the absence of pronouns that make that explicit.
Still, I disagree with this as a reason not to use inclusive language for a couple of reasons. The first is that pregnancy is probably the least likely context in which “people” could be taken to mean exclusively men. We already treat “pregnant person” and “woman” as congruent to the point of erasing infertile and post-menopausal women by using “women” as a stand-in for people who can get pregnant. I’m not worried that we’ll forget women are in the majority when we speak about abortion.
More than that, challenging the default assumption that “people” means “men” is feminist work, and it is feminist work that aids us in the rest of our goals. As long as a group of women has to be differentiated from a group of “people” in order to be recognized, our full human rights are always in doubt. Yes, “people” means us, whoever else it means, and the sooner everyone learns to hear it that way the better.
That doesn’t mean we prioritize changing the meaning of language over immediate political concerns, but we aren’t being asked to do that. Advocating for abortion rights in inclusive language is working toward both goals at the same time.
Why can’t references to people who don’t identify as women simply be added to references to women? After all, every year over 2,000 men get breast cancer and over 400 die, and no one is calling for “women” to be cut out of breast-cancer language so that men will feel more comfortable seeking treatment. If there was such a call, though, I wonder what would happen. Women have such a long history of minimizing themselves in order not to hurt feelings or seem self-promoting or attention-demanding. We are raised to put ourselves second, and too often, still, we do.
We could follow the pattern of communication we use for breast cancer in abortion advocacy. However, we should acknowledge the cost of doing so. The way we currently communicate about breast cancer means that men are likely to delay diagnosis and treatment, which in turn, leads to higher mortality. There is an argument to be made that the way we talk about breast cancer needs to be more inclusive rather than less. Setting men to the side here sees them too often left out altogether.
Nor is that an anomaly. As feminists, we spend a lot of time arguing that representation matters–and we’re right. (Update: For a trans person’s perspective on Pollitt’s argument, see this from Crip Dyke.) We should, at the very least, be hesitant and thoughtful about choosing to make any group an apparent afterthought in communication on issues that affect them. Sometimes there are good reasons to do it, but it isn’t a principle we should be encouraging per se.
There are broader questions of political language here. One organization tweeted that one in three “people” has had an abortion—actually, if we’re talking about people, it’s more like one in six. When the actress and feminist advocate Martha Plimpton organized an abortion-fund benefit lightheartedly named “Night of a Thousand Vaginas,” some activists were outraged, because some trans men don’t like that word (“birth canal” or “front hole” are favored alternatives to the V-word). Trans men should refer to their genitalia however they like, but it’s hard not to feel that there’s something seriously awry when women, who only got to call their genitals by the proper term in public a decade or so ago, are supposed to stop naming them in order to avoid offense.
As I said, sometimes there are good reasons to feature particular words that are less inclusive. The second example here could have been one of these if the event in question were about overcoming culturally induced shame of one’s genitalia, but it was merely a celebrity comedy event with ticket sales funding abortion services. Additionally, the arguments were that use of “vaginas” was unnecessarily reductionist in a way many women found objectionable and some trans men found to induce gender dysphoria.
The first instance is simply a misstatement. Do these happen more when language is shifting? They do. Much of our language use is reflexive and patterned, and it takes work to make sure we don’t say something silly when language changes–any time language changes. That hasn’t stopped us from pushing to stop calling adult women “girls”, even though it has occasionally resulted in unthinking howlers where prepubescent girls were referred to as “women”. This is an argument for taking care with our language as it shifts, but it’s not a reasonable argument for freezing usage at any given point in time.
That said, yes, there are times when it can be useful to refer to women as a class and be more inclusive on the side. I’ve done that myself in the context of talking about arguments against abortion rights. When I represent those arguments accurately, I use “women” because the people making those arguments don’t recognize the validity of gender identity separate from assigned sex. Then I explicitly call out that their arguments fail to make that distinction and that it’s not an oversight on their part. I do that both because I consider representation and inclusion to be important and because it highlights how poorly their arguments reflect the complexity of the real world.
I want our feminist messaging to be better than that. I want it to reflect complexity and messy reality, because that tells us that it’s more interested in the people affected than the abstract principle. When we’re making a human rights argument, that counts.
The real damage of abolishing “women” in abortion contexts, though, is to our political analysis. What happens to Dr. Tiller’s motto, “Trust Women”? There was a whole feminist philosophy expressed in those two words: women are competent moral actors and they, not men, clergy or the state, are the experts on their own lives, and should be the ones to decide how to shape them. It is because abortion gives power specifically to women that it was criminalized. How did Selina Meyer put it on Veep? If men got pregnant, you could get an abortion at an ATM.
Men can get pregnant, if they’re trans. Where’s my ATM?
If that sounds flip, it’s not any less so than the statement it’s responding to. Yes, there is political analysis behind Selina Meyer’s statement, but that statement is meant only as a starting point. It’s also a riff on Gloria Steinem’s “If Men Could Menstruate“, originally published in 1978.
For 1978, this was a groundbreaking work of popular political analysis. It isn’t, however, where we are today. We’ve moved beyond a point where we would think that if only black men could get pregnant, that would make abortion care VIP service. We don’t think that if only poor men could get pregnant, the world would be rearranged to make their lives easier. Gay men? Did you see the work that had to be done to convince anyone it was even worth saving their lives in the 1980s? We also know now that the ability of trans men to become pregnant doesn’t change the politics.
Real modern political analysis tells us that the world is designed to revolve around the needs of a relatively small group of men at the intersection of several privileged identities and that everyone else gets some mostly if it will help pit them against each other instead of those at the top. That’s the reality we have to grapple with. That’s the situation we face when we plan campaigns, either political or educational. Endorsement of 1970s political thought is best left to laugh lines in sitcoms.
Moreover, there is power in arguing for broader and more fundamental rights. Yes, call out the idea that women are less trustworthy as absurd and bigoted, while recognizing that the argument affects people who aren’t women. Then imagine a world in which we understood that trans people should be trusted to make the best choices for their own bodies even if we don’t understand why they make those choices. Imagine how hard it would be to argue that the understandable, relatable reproductive choices women make should somehow still be suspect.
A more broadly recognized right is harder to undermine, which is why we argue now against the “good abortion” narrative. A narrower right is always subject to being nibbled away. Being inclusive is its own reward politically, which shouldn’t be surprising.
“Trust people to steer their own bodies” is less bumper-sticker friendly, but this isn’t ultimately about bumper stickers. It’s about making the world a better place for people who are pregnant or face the possibility of becoming pregnant. Beyond just being a question of fairness, using inclusive language helps us at nearly every turn.