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Abortion Rights Create a New Debate Surrounding Inclusive Language


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In the weeks following the Supreme Court’s June 24 decision that overturned Roe v. Wade, entities across the political spectrum have engaged in a flurry of polarizing and impassioned debates. Recent comments — especially from those with large platforms and heightened visibility — have shown that much like gender is not a binary understanding of personhood, viewpoints on the topic can be more fluid than they seem. What remains consistent, however, is the growing number of organizations using gender-neutral language as the default in conversations about abortion rights and access for all people.

Since abortion is linked to language surrounding the reproductive system, many organizations and journalists reporting on the news have adopted more gender-inclusive language to talk about pregnancy and the termination of it — embracing an expanded view of abortion rights and how people’s identities and bodies are understood. Gender-neutral or gender-inclusive language avoids bias toward “a particular sex, social gender or gender identity and does not perpetuate gender stereotypes,” according to the United Nations.

In May 2021, NARAL Pro-Choice America tweeted its stance on using gender-inclusive language when referring to birthing people, saying: “We use gender-neutral language when talking about pregnancy because it’s not just cis-gender women that can get pregnant and give birth. Reproductive freedom is for every body.”

Some people, however, have been less amenable to linguistic progress. Prominent voices are facing backlash for speaking out against terms like “pregnant people” or “patients seeking abortions,” chafing at the decentering of the word “woman” from reproductive rights language.

Bette Midler addressed a tweet to the “women of the world” on Monday, saying: “We are being stripped of our rights over our bodies, our lives and even of our name! They don’t call us ‘women’ anymore; they call us ‘birthing people’ or ‘menstruators’, and even ‘people with vaginas’! Don’t let them erase you! Every human on earth owes you!” (The following day, she issued a follow-up clarification — this time to “people of the world” — noting that she was responding to a New York Times column that has been heavily criticized as transphobic and for implying that gender-inclusive language erases cisgender women. “There was no intention of anything exclusionary or transphobic in what I said,” Midler tweeted.)

In the column, Pamela Paul, former editor for the newspaper’s Book Review and former wife of noted conservative NYT opinion columnist Bret Stephens, writes: “The noble intent behind omitting the word ‘women’ is to make room for the relatively tiny number of transgender men and people identifying as non-binary who retain aspects of female biological function and can conceive, give birth or breastfeed.”

William Leap, an emeritus professor of anthropology at American University and an affiliate professor in the Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program at Florida Atlantic University, has pioneered research in queer historical linguistics and founded the annual, international Lavender Languages and Linguistics conference in 1993 to further advance the study of queer language research and discourse.

“Some of these women, I think, remember when women had to struggle to get women into the foreground of the conversation. And that’s a very difficult memory to suppress … that’s a generational thing I can understand,” Leap says in response to ciswomen bristling at modern language usage. “But the argument and the struggle moves on, and the rhetoric evolves and changes. You can’t call it ‘gay studies’ anymore. You can’t deal with these issues in terms of identity politics the way we did in the ’80s when we were just chipping away at conversations that just dealt with men and women. Now we’ve got to think more inclusively.”

In an interview with Piers Morgan for his Piers Morgan Uncensored show on July 4, singer Macy Gray said: “[A woman is] a human being with boobs … just because you go change your parts, it doesn’t make you a woman, sorry. I know that for a fact.”

(Other sexes and genders can have breasts, including cisgender men, who have less breast tissue than cisgender women).

Soon after, Piers Morgan thanked Gray for her “courage and honesty” and said she’d been “abused, hounded, shamed & branded ‘transphobic’ by the usual vile, vicious mob who attack women that defend women’s rights.” Harry Potter writer J.K. Rowling, who’s been criticized for her own comments on gender issues in recent years, also tweeted her support for Gray, saying: “Today feels like a good day to ensure I’ve bought [Macy Gray’s] entire back catalogue.”

“It’s surprising and also disappointing when we see that happen, especially because many of us are fans of different celebrities. It can be really disappointing for folks to not live up to some of the things that we’d hoped for or even projected onto them,” Lindsay Rodriguez, communications director at NNAF (National Network of Abortion Funds), tells THR. “I would say this has been a somewhat consistent thread and it really does flare up when abortion is in the news a lot … [but] using the term ‘people’ doesn’t exclude women. And for every barrier that cisgender women face, that is much more of a barrier faced by transgender and gender nonbinary people.”

These barriers become most visible in the area of healthcare access, as many trans people (especially those who are not affluent) have difficulty receiving adequate services under any condition.

“If you’re looking for a doctor, if you don’t have health care at all and you have to go to a public clinic, it’s a roll of the dice every time you go,” Leap says. “The starting point for trans folks is not just abortion, it’s any kind of medical service. The question of access, the question of affordability, the question of quality. That whole issue comes right into the foreground, as trans visibility comes right into the foreground.”

Rodriguez adds, “Abortion bans as a whole are something that impacts people who are marginalized by society the most … there are a lot of studies that show that trans people will opt out of health care situations that they don’t feel are safe, and that they don’t feel are inclusive.”

Continuing, Rodriguez says, “So from our perspective, especially as somebody who works to make abortion more accessible for the people who are most impacted, it’s very important to us that people who would be worried, in any realm, about seeking out abortion care, know that they can call Abortion Funds, and that that’s a safe place.”

In the abortion rights conversation, substitutes for female-coded words like “breast” (“chestfeeding” and “human milk” in lieu of “breastfeeding” and “breast milk,” for instance) work to make visible the presence of transgender men and nonbinary people as individuals who are able to become pregnant and thus are affected by abortion legislation just as cisgender women are.

Kelsey Rhodes, interim director of communications at Physicians for Reproductive Health, tells THR in an emailed statement: “Our work and the language we use when we do this work will continue to evolve over time because we as humans will continue to evolve our own language to reflect our experiences and the care we need.”

And according to Adrienne Verrilli, vp of communications & culture at Planned Parenthood, the power of language lies in the fact that “it can be used to educate and foster community, but it can also be weaponized to mislead, spread misinformation and deny belonging.”

In an emailed statement to THR, Verrilli continues:Planned Parenthood has long understood that the fundamental right to sexual and reproductive health and agency over our own bodies is not limited to any one gender. We prioritize using gender-neutral or inclusive language wherever we can to appropriately reflect the identities of our patients and staff, and to ensure that patients feel welcome and seen in our health centers. This is evident in many spaces, from national and affiliate marketing campaigns, to patient intake forms, to our work advising TV and film directors, producers, and writers on scripts.”

Most of these activist organizations have long implemented gender-inclusive language. For instance, in 2017, the Abortion Care Network adopted a values statement addressing “the interconnected forces of oppression,” of which language is one thread.

“Some of our clinic members offer gender-affirming care to cis, nonbinary and transgender people across this country. Unfortunately, many of our members experience the negative impact of anti-abortion and anti-transgender legislative and political interference that impacts their relationships with their patients and their community,” says Abortion Care Network deputy director Erin Grant. “When we include all people, our movements, conversations and impact broaden. When we have more voices and experiences that can authentically talk about abortion and access to reproductive health as a human right, we can work together as communities that deserve a future. And, we can provide more nuance to who has abortions, pregnancy care, fertility treatment and our shared need for access to essential health services and why.”

ARC-Southeast, a reproductive justice organization, uses gender-neutral and affirming language when discussing abortion not only because “it’s inclusive and reflects our commitment to intersectionality, but also because it is accurate,” says Jalessah Jackson, interim executive director. “We understand that attacks on abortion access, including but not limited to the recent Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe, are rooted in the desire of the patriarchal state to limit bodily autonomy — one of the many ways it aims to maintain control over people and communities. Language is a powerful tool for reflecting this reality and for helping us identify who is impacted by it.”

Though for many people the presence of gender-neutral language seems to be a relatively novel phenomenon, for members of the queer community, this pursuit of inclusive language is centuries old.

According to Dr. Leap, whose 1995 book Beyond the Lavender Lexicon features papers on trans language usage, “there’s evidence of distinctive linguistic practices related to trans people that goes back to the 19th century.” One case study from the 1850s or ’60s shows evidence of a person saying: “‘I don’t know whether I’m a man or a woman,’ and this person uses language exactly that way,” Leap says. “Here is someone who is saying: ‘I need to make language work for me, and I’m going to do it.’ It is absolutely critical that in discussions of abortion or any health care, trans subjects get identified clearly as persons who are participating in the conversation.”

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