Words Matter in Reproductive Rights Discussions

Considerable attention is paid to the heated debate over words, and dogwhistles, used in reproductive rights conversations. Abortion opponents, for example, are fond of referring to fetuses as babies, and reproductive health care providers as abortionists. Meanwhile, pro-choice campaigners are careful to use medically correct terminology, and to reject terms that are inaccurate or misleading.

Less attention is paid to language within the movement, and those of us who push for more accurate terminology are sometimes informed that we are divisive, or splitting hairs. In fact, just the opposite: We want to use terminology that is as clear as possible to make what we are saying absolutely understandable, to eliminate confusion, and to make sure that all people with a stake in this conversation are included in it. Conversations that do not include groups they are about are doomed to eventual failure.

And presenting a united front as a movement is critical to achieving goals. By this I do not mean that us ‘divisive’ people should shut up and wait our term, but rather that mainstream reproductive rights activists should be fully including us from the start instead of leaving us alone and unsupported. Alone, we make easy targets, both for people within the movement who don’t like us, and from people on the outside of the movement who are looking for a weak point. When we are united with you, we not only add our forces to yours to make your movement stronger, but we leave fewer openings for attack.

Inclusive language debates in this particular context tend to centre around the use of ‘women[1. By which people mean cis women.]’ when ‘people’ would be more appropriate, because cis women are not the only people who can get pregnant, nor are all cis women capable of pregnancy. Yes, the vast majority of people who can get pregnant are cis women, but that doesn’t mean cis women alone are affected by attacks on reproductive rights, or are the only ones affected by misogyny.

Cissexism as well as gender essentialism, not just misogyny, play a role here; the attacks on reproductive rights are rooted in the idea that all women have uteri and all women have the capacity to get pregnant. And that all women are less than human. While fighting these ideas, the left needs to be careful not to reinforce them.

Some argue that asking for the use of gender-neutral terms like people, person, patient, pregnant person, expecting parent, etc. is ‘divisive’ or ‘unclear,’ but it’s only unclear if you want to be deliberately obtuse and make it unclear. And it’s only divisive if you have a problem with making sure a movement includes all the people it could potentially impact, not just the most obvious targets.

Yes, sometimes inclusive language can be clumsy, but it’s telling to track the ways in which it is resisted, to hear over and over again that it’s too much work, or too confusing. ‘People who can get pregnant’ is more accurate than ‘women’ because not all women can get pregnant, and not all people who can get pregnant are women. The clumsiness is a reflection of the ways in which English fails to keep pace with a changing society, one where genitals do not gender make, and where there are more than two genders. Does that mean we should take the easy way out rather than the accurate one?

I struggle for wording myself; ‘the right’s attack on uteri’ doesn’t have nearly the same ring as ‘the right’s attack on women,’ and there’s also a disembodied and dehumanising element to it. On the other hand, given that the right basically reduces certain bodies to a single reproductive organ, perhaps it’s not an entirely inappropriate or ineffective statement. This is more about an attack on poor people and people of colour as well as nonwhite people than a purely gendered divide, as well. But yes, inclusive language can be messy, less crisp and punchy, can feel affected and stagy, even though it is also more accurate.

Failing to use inclusive language feeds cissexism, and it also feeds the agenda of the right by playing on its own terms. Talking about ‘the war on women’ excludes large groups of people, and also muddies the discussion. Because there is, very specifically, a war on women, cis and trans, going on in US society right now, and while it is linked with the reproductive rights debate, it is not identical; the war on reproductive rights overlaps but is not synonymous. Much of the language surrounding attacks on reproductive rights is deeply misogynist and rooted in attitudes about women, and this needs to be addressed, of course, but it’s not the only thing going on here.

Attcks on reproductive rights are part of a larger culture that devalues women; women make less than men, are more vulnerable to crime, and face a host of other social problems. This is particularly true of nonwhite women, disabled women, queer women, and women of colour. These issues are exacerbated by political activities and policies, and we need to be talking about those, the very specific misogyny-rooted issues happening. We need to be discussing why women are viewed as second class citizens, and how conservative moves to limit reproductive autonomy both directly harm cis women and further contribute to their social marginalisation.

And we also need to talk about how restrictions on access to reproductive rights harm men, harm other people who can get pregnant, make it harder for us to access reproductive health services. We need to talk about the cissexism inherent in insurance plans that would deny pregnancy coverage to men or reproductive health clinics that turn away nonbinary people. And how government interference in the provision of health care feeds these things and reinforces them. These are part of the war on reproductive rights too.

By acting like reproductive rights is an issue that only affects ‘women,’ activists are unwittingly fanning the flames of cissexism. They’re breaking down a complex issue to a catchphrase, and it’s one that ultimately hurts their own movement. And I know how difficult it is to write quick meaty headlines that will draw readers. How hard it is to compose 140 characters to express a thought or idea. How frustrating it is when you have to use unwieldy, circuitous language to make a point. How nice it would be if you could just say ‘state’s new sonogram law is bad news for women.’

How, sometimes, yes, accuracy does need to be sacrificed in the cause of making something readily accessible. There’s a difference between making a conscious choice to use a less accurate term, and being careless or deliberately exclusive, though.

Activism is not easy. Sometimes it seems like one of the hardest parts of activism is ensuring that no voices are left out, that no one is excluded from the conversation, that everyone is given equal ground. Internal frustration with movements is often dismissed by leaders, but it’s important to pay attention, and not just to get people to shut up and go with the programme. It’s also important because it highlights what is wrong with the programme, how the programme could be improved, how it might be possible to get more people interested and involved with the programme.

Every time people are told to shut up for wanting more accuracy and nuance, it’s another nail in the coffin for them, another thing that makes them feel more distant, unwanted, and alienated. Eventually that slow-burning rage and frustration turns active, forces people to split off to attempt to accomplish their goals on their own, because clearly they aren’t considered part of ‘the movement.’ And that weakens everyone involved, taking talent away when it could be harnessed, and creating openings for opponents to exploit.

Language matters. Talking about language is messy, imprecise, and fast-paced, but it doesn’t mean these conversations shouldn’t happen, or that people should be made to feel left out by a lack of consideration for language. Sadly, sometimes it feels like a set of constantly-moving goalposts is being created, with language being used as an insider’s club rather than a tool for open access and discussion, which makes it hard to have these conversations. Asking for inclusion isn’t about wanting attention or wanting to show people up with your better activist credentials, or at least it shouldn’t be. It’s about making sure a movement actively embraces potential members and supporters.