During a Senate hearing on Tuesday about the impact of the Supreme Court’s decision to reverse Roe v. Wade, the landmark case that provided a constitutional right to abortion, Sen. Josh Hawley clashed with law professor Khiara Bridges over a series of questions about who can be pregnant.
Hawley, a Republican from Missouri, asked Bridges, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, why she used the phrase “people with a capacity for pregnancy” when she described the impacts of abortion restrictions and bans.
“You’ve referred to people with a capacity for pregnancy — would that be women?” Hawley asked.
Bridges responded that many cisgender women, who identify with their assigned sex at birth, have the capacity for pregnancy and that many do not.
“There are also trans men who are capable of pregnancy as well as nonbinary people who are capable of pregnancy,” she said, referring to people who identify as neither male nor female.
Hawley shot back, “So this isn’t really a women’s rights issue?”
“We can recognize that this impacts women while also recognizing that it impacts other groups,” Bridges said. “Those things are not mutually exclusive.”
Hawley continued to press Bridges and asked her what the core of the right to abortion is about.
“So I want to recognize that your line of questioning is transphobic,” Bridges responded.
She continued, “And it opens up trans people to violence,” but then Hawley cut her off and the two began a tense exchange.
“I’m opening up people to violence by asking whether or not women are the folks who can have pregnancies?” he said.
Bridges responded with a statistic, noting that 1 in 5 transgender people have attempted suicide, and then Hawley interrupted her again: “Because of my line of questioning? So we can’t talk about it?”
Bridges continued, “Because denying that trans people exist and pretending not to know that they exist is dangerous.”
Hawley interrupted again: “I’m denying that trans people exist by asking you if you’re talking about women having pregnancies?”
As he asked his question, Bridges repeatedly asked him, “Are you?”
Bridges then asked Hawley if he believes men can get pregnant, and he said no. To which Bridges responded, “Then you’re denying that trans people exist. Thank you.”
“And that leads to violence?” Hawley responded. He then fired off a series of questions asking if this is how Bridges runs her classroom and if students are made to feel that they’re opening people up to violence.
“We have a good time in my class — you should join,” she said. “You might learn a lot.”
Gillian Branstetter, a communications strategist at the American Civil Liberties Union, said it's "deeply telling Sen. Hawley would rather engage in the erasure of transgender people than learn about the harms of the abortion bans he backs."
"It’s characteristic of politicians across the country who will cling to archaic ideas about womanhood and gender while endorsing policies which are devastating to women and transgender people themselves," she said.
The heated exchange between Bridges and Hawley captures a larger debate over inclusive language in the abortion rights movement. Some argue that phrases like "people who experience pregnancy" exclude cisgender women when they are the most likely to need access to abortion.
But others note that including transgender and nonbinary people in the conversation doesn't erase or exclude women. Research also suggests transgender people would be disproportionately affected by restrictions on abortion.
A 2019 study of trans, nonbinary and gender-diverse people found that 36% of respondents considered trying to end a pregnancy on their own, without clinical supervision. The study said this “could reflect formidable barriers to facility-based abortion care as well as a strong desire for privacy and autonomy in the abortion process,” and that efforts are needed to connect trans people “with information on safe and effective methods of self-managed abortion and to dismantle barriers to clinical abortion care… .”
The back and forth between Bridges and Hawley also took place amid a nationwide surge in anti-LGBTQ legislation. Since January, more than 340 anti-LGBTQ bills — the majority of which target transgender youth — have been introduced in state legislatures, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
Missouri, the state that Hawley represents, considered two bills that would have barred transgender students from participating on schools sports teams that match their gender identity as opposed to their assigned sex at birth. The Missouri House passed the bills in April, but they did not make it through the Senate.