The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What Josh Hawley doesn’t get in the discussion about ‘pregnant people’

Conversations about pregnancy should be factual — and caring

At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on July 12 about abortion access, semantics clouded the real issues. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)
Comment

I spent much of the past calendar year as a pregnant woman. I wrote about being a pregnant woman many times in the pages of The Washington Post. Nobody ever told me I couldn’t identify as a pregnant woman in those columns. Nobody ever told me I couldn’t identify other pregnant women as pregnant women. On occasion I mentioned pregnant people who were not women — they were transgender men, or nonbinary individuals. I did not call them “pregnant women” because that would have been inaccurate and silly. I identified them as “pregnant people,” which seemed like a fairly basic and obvious solution.

If you’ve read the above paragraph and have no idea what I’m going on about, then here’s a recap: There is a discussion going on in newsrooms, on social media, in government and in the reproductive access community, about the language we use around pregnancy. Do we talk about “pregnant women,” to acknowledge the identity and specific history of the vast majority of people who carry children? Or, to be inclusive of non-women who can also get pregnant, do we say “pregnant people,” or maybe, “people with uteruses?”

“You’ve referred to ‘people with a capacity for pregnancy,’” Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) said to law professor Khiara Bridges in a Tuesday hearing about abortion access. “Would that be women?”

“Many women, cis women, have the capacity for pregnancy,” Bridges responded. “There are also trans men who are capable of pregnancy as well as nonbinary people.”

Reproductive rights and transgender rights are currently two of the country’s most hot-button issues, and the intersection of these topics has grown flammable. “Women didn’t fight this long and this hard only to be told we couldn’t call ourselves women anymore,” New York Times columnist Pamela Paul wrote last week. “This isn’t just a semantic issue; it’s also a question of moral harm, an affront to our very sense of ourselves.”

The same day, Bette Midler tweeted, “WOMEN OF THE WORLD! 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.’ ”

Their arguments, in a nutshell: Women have been assaulted, dismissed and otherwise victimized by gender-based discrimination for millennia. Women’s identities have been shaped and strengthened by these experiences. At the very least, they should get to claim the word that has been the source of their pride and pain.

We could pick at these arguments, of course, as some of them are hollow. Nobody is saying that women can’t call themselves women anymore. The examples Paul cited (wording from the websites of Planned Parenthood or NARAL) are organizations choosing to use more-inclusive language for their own work or their own branding. These organizations are not dictating what women personally are allowed to do. As for Midler: She did not clarify who “they” was, but truly there is no quicker way to look unhinged in a public forum than to rant in all-caps about an unspecified “they.”

But I have a measure of sympathy for people like Midler because the debate over the terminology of pregnancy is, frankly, a mess. It’s marred by scaremongering and subtraction, focusing on what the transgender community is allegedly taking away from women.

The debate doesn’t wrestle with the true and hard issues: what it means to carry a child, to birth a child, to navigate the American medical system while pregnant. What it means to live in a body that is both celebrated and punished for its incubation capabilities, to live in a body that the legislative and judicial systems feel they have a right to control.

There were times during the delivery of my daughter when I felt that I was experiencing something more divinely and primordially feminine than I had ever known — a connection to every mother who had come before me, who ever labored in a hut or home or hospital, testing the limits of her body and soul. Other times during the delivery my divine femininity was usurped by my possession of a single reproductive organ: One trainee nurse referred to me the entire time as “the uterus.”

More often than not the experience was a mix of both identity and biology. An anesthesiologist botched my epidural and then didn’t believe it was botched. I wondered whether he would have believed me if I were a man — and then decided, body on fire, I didn’t care whether the doctor was mistreating me because he was a misogynist, or whether he thought of me as a woman or a birthing person. I just wanted him to fix the friggin’ needle. I just wanted the care I deserved.

And that’s what we’re really talking about when it comes to this terminology that sounds like it’s about semantics but is actually about “our very sense of ourselves.” (Paul got that right, at least.) We’re talking about the care each and every one of us, every sex and every gender, deserves as human beings.

In many ways it is impossible to separate the experience of being pregnant with the experience of being a woman. Historically when the medical community has treated women, it has treated them as hysterics and hypochondriacs. It has underestimated their pain and underfunded the research that could address it. None of this history changes when a woman walks into a clinic pregnant.

And yet, people who aren’t women walk into clinics pregnant, too. They walk in with their own histories of medical discrimination and dismissal, with their own bodies in need of care and tending. That’s not an affront to womanhood, or a subtraction. It’s just a fact.

I like the way that Kate Manne has thought through this issue, as it specifically relates to abortion access. Manne, a feminist moral philosopher, has written that abortion bans are misogynistic because they “target and primarily victimize women, who are seen as no longer fulfilling their rightful reproductive and social role as mothers in particular and caregivers in general.”

But, she continues, “When I talk about who is potentially affected by abortion bans, I thus talk about people who can get pregnant.”

Legislation impacting pregnancies might have been written intending to regulate women. But these laws end up regulating anyone who has a uterus, whether that person is a woman or not. After all, a state that has prohibited abortions doesn’t care what kind of pronouns are employed by the person who wants to end a pregnancy.

Our language when discussing reproduction needs to be precise in describing what is happening and who it’s happening to. It also needs to be factual, and it ought to be caring.

And one more thing: It should be a language of addition, not subtraction. It should acknowledge the fundamental experiences that have shaped women and pregnancy since the beginning of time, and it should acknowledge the universal experiences of pregnancy that transcend beyond gender.

Or, as Khiara Bridges phrased it in her response to Sen. Hawley on Tuesday: “We can recognize that this impacts women while also recognizing that it also impacts other groups. Those things are not mutually exclusive.”

If you know you’re talking about a pregnant woman, by all means, call her that. If you know you’re talking about someone who is pregnant and not a woman, then address them how they want to be addressed.

When in doubt: Pregnant women and other pregnant people.

You’re gaining just seven extra syllables. And I promise, you’re losing nothing.

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