I’m reading the British Medical Association’s guidance on inclusive language, subsection “pregnancy and maternity”. “Gender inequality is reflected in traditional ideas about the roles of women and men,” it says, and I nod firmly. “It is common to assume a woman will have children, look after them and take a break from paid work or work part-time to accommodate the family…such assumptions and stereotypes can and often do have the effect of seriously disadvantaging women,” it says, and my nodding steps up to a vigorous pace.
All solid, sensible and anti-sexist stuff. And then I get to this: “A large majority of people that have been pregnant or have given birth identify as women. We can include intersex men and transmen who may get pregnant by saying ‘pregnant people’ instead of ‘expectant mothers’.”
Pregnant people. Pregnant. People. As though acknowledging a connection between femaleness and pregnancy was as crass and false as saying “little girls like pink” or “men make better leaders”.
Inclusion is very welcome from the medical profession, which is still making its own long crawl out of being a boys' club. 55 per cent of medical students are women, but only 10.5 per cent are consultant surgeons. The story behind that disparity is one of outright misogyny: female medics face sexual harassment, intrusive questions about their family plans, and plain old dismissiveness from their male seniors. No wonder women get tired of flattening their faces against the glass ceiling.
But this isn’t inclusion. This is making women unmentionable. It feels normal – even liberal! – because the unmentionableness of women is such a deeply ingrained cultural default. Male is the standard, female is the deviation. Say “mankind” and people will understand that you mean “human”, but “womankind” can never stand for everybody, because being a woman means having a female body, and the female can never be universal.
Through long history, women have been told that our (intermittently) bleeding, (potentially) breeding, (occasionally) milk-leaking bodies make us less than men: less rational, less intelligent, less under the law. So feminists argued, against a millennia of derision, that being female was not an inferior condition. They fought for medical care that treated femaleness as normal, not aberrant: contraception, abortion, maternity choices that we made for ourselves rather than having them made for us by white-coated men who’d sooner whip us into stirrups than listen to us face-to-face.
The BMA advice is just another manifestation of the old bind. You can be an archaic “expectant mother”, or you can be a “pregnant person”, but you can’t be a “pregnant woman”: if want to be treated like a human rather than an incubator, apparently you’ll have to surrender your sex at the admissions desk.
The rationale, that this is to help transmen and intersex people who might somehow be injured by language redolent of femaleness, is thin at best. Trans people – classed as those who either have undertaken or intend to undertake some kind of physical transition – make up about 0.2 per cent of the population. The highest estimate of the intersex population is 1.7 per cent, but narrower definitions put it at 100 times smaller, and many intersex conditions also cause infertility. A 2008 study identified 11 known cases of pregnancy in intersex people.
“Small” doesn’t mean “irrelevant”. Trans and intersex people need, and are entitled to, specific and sensitive care around pregnancy, and doctors need to be able to provide that. But women are entitled to the same. Having a female body, and knowing what that means for reproduction, doesn’t make you “exclusionary”. Forcing us to decorously scrub out any reference to our sex on pain of being called bigots is an insult.
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