The toppling of Roe v. Wade has catalyzed a heated debate among some abortion rights supporters over whether gender-neutral language — like “pregnant people” instead of “pregnant women” and “chestfeeding” instead of “breastfeeding” — should be used in advocating for abortion rights.
A number of leading abortion rights and civil rights groups, including Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union, and some Democratic lawmakers, like Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, have shifted their messaging in this way to be more LGBTQ-inclusive as an increasing number of Americans identify as transgender and nonbinary. Even the National Education Association, the country’s largest public teachers union, recently proposed changing the word “mother” to “birthing parent” in contracts.
As abortion-rights activism has been amplified in recent weeks following the Supreme Court’s historic decision last month to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 landmark ruling that guaranteed a constitutional right to abortion, some pro-abortion rights, cisgender women have taken notice of these linguistic changes — and not all of them are pleased.
On July 3, The New York Times published an op-ed titled “The Far Right and Far Left Agree on One Thing: Women Don’t Count,” in which opinion columnist Pamela Paul argued that the shift in messaging is erasing cisgender women — women whose gender identity matches their birth sex.
“The noble intent behind omitting the word ‘women’ is to make room for the relatively tiny number of transgender men and people identifying as nonbinary who retain aspects of female biological function and can conceive, give birth or breastfeed,” Paul wrote. “But despite a spirit of inclusion, the result has been to shove women to the side.”
The following day, the actor Bette Midler made international headlines when she 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’ or ‘menstruators’, and even ‘people with vaginas’! Don’t let them erase you! Every human on earth owes you!”
On Tuesday, Midler sent a follow-up tweet explaining that her previous remarks were in response to Paul’s “fascinating and well written” op-ed and were not meant to be “exclusionary or transphobic.”
But while the cisgender women sharing these linguistic concerns see them as solidly pro-women, trans advocates have largely classified them as anti-transgender.
“The notion that you can’t say the word ‘women’ strikes me as the notion that you can’t say ‘Merry Christmas,’” Gillian Branstetter, a communications strategist at the ACLU, said. “It’s a panic that is very absent from reality and attempts to position a growing, changing society as a threat.”
Branstetter also noted that while the ACLU’s press release following the Roe reversal used the term “pregnant people,” the word “women” was used more than a dozen times.
An argument made by cisgender women against using gender-neutral language to push for abortion rights is that the number of cisgender women seeking reproductive care vastly outweighs the number of trans and nonbinary people seeking similar care.
“Every single being who has ever needed an abortion in the entire history of humanity was female,” best-selling author Helen Joyce, who has written a series of articles for The Economist and a book challenging transgender identities, said. “And until very recently, for most people, we use the word ‘women’ for female people.”
Joyce added that using gender-neutral language makes women invisible and chips away at their collective political power.
“It’d be like trying to fight against slavery by saying ‘people own’ and ‘people are owned,’” Joyce, who is pro-abortion rights, said. “Well, which people own? And which people are owned? You’ve got to name the people who were affected by something.”
There is little research on the number of trans or nonbinary people who receive abortions in the U.S., as most medical systems record them as female. However, a 2020 study by Planned Parenthood and the Guttmacher Institute — a research and policy organization dedicated to expanding sexual and reproductive health and rights worldwide — estimated that of the roughly 862,000 abortions performed in the U.S. in 2017, 462 to 530 of them were conducted on trans or nonbinary people. But given the growing proportion of Americans who identify as trans or nonbinary, experts believe the number could be higher. A study published by the Pew Research Center last month found that about 5% of young adults in the U.S. identify as transgender or nonbinary.
Adri Pèrez, 29, who is nonbinary, had an abortion as a teenager after being sexually assaulted and before transitioning.
“I was 16 years old; I was a girl,” Pèrez said. “To describe me as a ‘woman’ even then would have been insulting and factually incorrect as well.”
Pèrez also said language that does not include trans or nonbinary people perpetuates health care discrimination against them, and prevents them from seeking necessary care. More than a third of trans people who have been pregnant considered ending the pregnancy themselves because of abortion-access barriers and health care mistreatment, according to a 2019 report by the journal BMJ Seuxal & Reproductive Health.
Nearly half of transgender people — and 68% of transgender people of color — report having experienced mistreatment at the hands of a medical provider, including refusal of care and verbal or physical abuse, according to a 2021 report by the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. The survey of 1,528 LGBTQ people also found that 28% of trans people, and 22% of trans people of color, reported having postponed or not obtained necessary medical care for fear of discrimination.
“When I first came out in 2010, and when I first started to try to start to transition in 2012, there were no doctors in my city who knew how to treat or talk to transgender patients,” Pèrez, who lives in Austin, Texas, said. “I was so desperate that I emailed every single one of them, and I attached studies and research, and not one of them would see me."
Alejandra Caraballo, a clinical instructor at Harvard Law’s Cyberlaw Clinic and a transgender-rights advocate, said she worries that this most recent debate will erode public support for trans people at a time when their rights are being debated at historic rates.
More than 340 anti-LGBTQ bills were introduced in states across the country this year, according to the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBTQ advocacy group.
“This is just giving a further greenlight to transphobic people to push transphobic policies and create this false sense of scarcity that somehow trans rights are in opposition to women’s rights when oftentimes they go hand in hand,” Carabello said.
Despite the recent criticism of gender-neutral language in the abortion rights movement, a poll of more than 10,000 Americans published by the Pew Research Center last month found that women — and particularly Democratic or liberal-leaning women — are generally more accepting of the transgender community than men. For example, the poll found that among Democrats and Democratic leaners, 54% of women surveyed say it is “extremely” or “very important” to refer to trans people by their new pronouns, compared with 46% of men in this same political group.
Mini Timmaraju, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said that when she was growing up, she didn’t see herself in the feminist movement as a woman of color. But today, the movement is stronger because of its diversity, she said.
“Women have the right to be angry, but we’ve got to be focused on the true villain here,” Timmaraju said. “It’s not the trans community or nonbinary folks that’s taking away your rights. It’s extremist Republican elected officials.”