POV: Who Is Forgotten in Our Discussion of Abortion?
POV: Who Is Forgotten in Our Discussion of Abortion?
The media is failing to address the fact that nonbinary people and trans men need abortion care, too
Much of the news media coverage addressing the new Texas law that significantly restricts abortion access ignores some of the most vulnerable people affected by this legislation. It is no surprise that the national conversation is full of gendered euphemisms about “women’s health” and “women’s bodies,” narrowly framing abortion as a “woman’s issue” rather than addressing abortion, and reproductive health care more broadly, as the human rights issues that they are. There is a simple, yet devastating, error being made with most news coverage of this issue: nonbinary people and trans men need abortion care too. We agree with Nicole Huberfeld, the Edward R. Utley Professor of Health Law, Ethics, and Human Rights, a School of Public Health professor, and a School of Law professor of law, who recently said in a BU Today article that what “often gets lost in these discussions is the real-world implications, especially for already vulnerable populations.” This is one case where the conversation itself can have a material impact. The erasure of trans men and nonbinary people from those who may need abortion services perpetuates inequalities in reproductive health care that trans and nonbinary people already face, and causes harm to some of those same vulnerable people.
In 2017, GLAAD estimated that as many as 12 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds are not cisgender, meaning they do not identify with the sex they were assigned at birth. It’s hard to glean from these data exactly how many of these transgender, genderqueer, nonbinary, agender, and other gender nonconforming people are capable of getting pregnant and are therefore affected by abortion laws like the new Texas one, but other data suggest that it is roughly half. Therefore, when discussions of reproductive health care only include the ramifications for “women,” they leave out a substantial number of potentially pregnant people in the age range most likely to become pregnant.
By using women-specific gendered language around reproductive health care, we reinforce and perpetuate systems of harm and exclusion that affect trans men and nonbinary people every day. Sometimes this harm and exclusion manifest in extreme discomfort—for example, feeling like one doesn’t belong in a medical center. Consequences of this harm include individuals not seeking regular, preventive health care. Moreover, health care workers’ perception of a patient’s masculinity prevents individuals from receiving the care they need, including routine medical tests, such as mammograms and pap smears necessary for anyone with breasts and a cervix. If we are going to acknowledge that these laws will negatively impact vulnerable populations more than well-off ones, we should also acknowledge this disparity in access to, and quality of, health care that our gendered language only exacerbates.
Luckily, there is a very simple fix. We urge the news media (including BU Today), and everyone reading this piece, to use gender-neutral language when discussing reproductive health care. This means referring to pregnant people, or people who may become pregnant, as the people targeted by abortion bans or limits. This also means de-gendering health care euphemisms; it’s not women’s health care, it’s reproductive health care or (when appropriate) abortion care. Refer to specific body parts if and when they are relevant to the discussion, such as uteruses or vaginas, rather than women’s bodies or women’s body parts. This language is more specific as well as more inclusive, and ensures that vulnerable, minoritized individuals are not left out of our discussions regarding the health care that they need. Over time, inclusive language will encourage inclusive practices and help reduce the documented health care outcomes disparity for trans men and nonbinary people too.
It is important to acknowledge that the laws, policies, attitudes, and discussions around abortion, and reproductive health care more broadly, have huge effects on the lives of cisgender women. The intent of gender-neutral language is not to minimize or subtract from that fact. Rather, it is an acknowledgement that women are not defined by their ability to give birth, and the capacity to become pregnant is not restricted to people who identify as women. Abortion care is a fundamental right that needs to be protected, no matter the gender of the person seeking it. The language we use shapes the way we think about the people involved, thus a small shift in language can have a significant impact.
Olivia McCargar (she/her) is the College of Arts & Sciences Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program program coordinator.
Meghan Kelly (she/they) (CAS’15, Wheelock’19) is the CAS classical studies department former department administrator.
Michele A. “Shelly” DeBiasse (she/they) (Questrom’16) is a Sargent College of Health & Rehabilitation Sciences clinical associate professor of health sciences and program director of nutrition and a Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program affiliated faculty member.
Megan J. Elias (she/they) is a Metropolitan College associate professor of the practice and Gastronomy Program director and a Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program affiliated faculty member.
Karen M. Warkentin (they/she) is a CAS professor of biology and a Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program core faculty member.
Paula C. Austin (she/her) is a CAS assistant professor of history and a Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program core faculty member.
Cati Connell (she/her) is a CAS associate professor of sociology and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program director.
Sarah Miller is a CAS and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program lecturer in sociology.
Sean Desilets is a CAS Writing Program and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program senior lecturer.
Susanne Sreedhar (she/her) is a CAS associate professor of philosophy and a Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program core faculty member.
Christopher A. Schmitt (he/they) is a CAS assistant professor of anthropology and of biology and a Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program affiliated faculty member.
Brenda Gael McSweeney (she/her) is the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program UNITWIN drector.
They can all be reached by contacting the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I think you’ve completely missed the point of the new TX law …
Yes, they should perhaps have used more ‘gender’ appropriate language, but the reality point of that law was to set a marker for ‘when life begins’ vs the whole social discussion of who might be pregnant, etc
When NY legislators stood and clapped to celebrate abortion anytime, anywhere, on-demand – and even post birth (several other states went this barbaric way too), the sea completely changed … it was no longer a discussion of ‘safe, legal, and rare’ and/or ‘a woman’s right to choose’ but rather it became a discussion on infanticide and everything turned upside down .. the more casual supporter of ‘choice’ has been pushed to much more deeply evaluate their individual position – and MANY have gone hard towards Pro-Life (from Pro-Choice) …
But the real debate will center on how the courts FINALLY decide ‘when does life begin’ .. and if you’re being honest and impartial, you have to give TX legislators much credit for picking a point like a ‘noticeable heartbeat’ vs something more nebulous like ‘at conception’ .. but in EITHER instance, FAR MORE DEFENSIBLE than ‘post birth’ ..
Roe v Wade IS a landmark case on abortion rights .. but MUCH less so on the baseline question of ‘life’ and when it begins, as much as it is on ‘states rights’ to control access
This is going to be a fascinating matter to follow through the courts .. and have no fear, I’m sure that ‘gender’ will also be addressed.
Hi there! Co author here. We have not missed the point of the implications of the TX law. I’m willing to assume you’ve read this in good faith. This particular article is in direct response to the original BU today article, and in general discusses the fact that abortion restrictions are an intersectional feminist issue that impact trans men and nonbinary people, not only women.
Hi, Betil here! I’m not from the US but I’ve been watching this story very closely because it feels very personal regardless of the nation. When I first read the law, it reminded me a lot of JK Rowling’s “why not call ‘people who menstruate’ just ‘women’?” statement…
So many people tell me to be more understanding and consider their age or the environment they grew up in whenever I say that I don’t like people like JK. I kind of get my friends’ points but that is never an excuse for not learning.
It is absolutely horrible that the people who are in charge are so uneducated about so many important topics like gender, sexuality, race, etc. and the fact that we have to live by their decisions is extremely disheartening.
As a gender-queer person from Turkey, I feel thankful that you talked about this so earnestly and completely. It is so refreshing to see other members of the LGBTQIA+ community and allies speaking up about injustices geared towards us. Like you all said, we can take a tangible step towards the solution by being more open these issues and being considerate of others’ identities.
Just a “thank you” comment :)
Who is forgotten? The baby.
Access to abortion is not just an issue that affects “people capable of becoming pregnant”, it affects women because denying access to abortion to the subset of people who can become pregnant is also a form of discrimination against women. I’m past menopause and am physically able to get pregnant, but I still care about abortion access, not just because of some kind of detached empathy about something I don’t personally experience, but because restricting the rights of women affect me directly as a woman.
Although I completely agree with making language more inclusive, I fear that in that effort we come up with language that is off-putting and dehumanizing (I’m a woman, not just a “person with a vagina”) and ignores the very real discrimination that people who society defines as women experience on this planet solely because of their status as women.
Why can’t we use phrases like “pregnant women and pregnant people” or “women and people who are capable of pregnancy” or “abortion rights for women and people who need abortion services”. Yes, the wording is more awkward but isn’t it MORE inclusive?
If we don’t use the phrase ‘women and AFAB’ but instead use ‘pregnant people’, how are we supposed to link the effects not having access to an abortion and reproductive healthcare has on women, girls and AFAB people across their whole lives… not just if and when they get pregnant?
There’s a whole range of women’s rights issues: gender pay gap, domestic violence, financial dependency on partner/father and ability to leave toxic situations, lack of career progress, lack of access to education, femicide, unpaid care work, child-care leave, lack of women and AFAB policy representatives… all of which are connected to the choice *not* to get pregnant when you don’t want to be… .. all those things will get worse if abortion is restricted.
An individual woman or AFAB person will continue to disproportinatly feel the effects of being denied an abortion long after they’re a ‘pregnant person’.
Similarly, women and AFAB who *never* get pregnant are going to be affected. In a world without abortion or contracepties – you go for a job interview as a woman in your 30’s and the interviewer assumes there’s a chance your going to get pregnant so doesn’t give you the job. In a world without abortion, even if you as a individual woman choose not to get pregnant, there’s less women and AFAB people around in workplace, less in Government because they’re all tied up in pregnancy and childcare… that’s going to have a knock on effect in representation and policy.
Doesn’t ‘pregnant people’ risk decoupling abortion from the wider context of how it affects women’s and AFAB lives, and also how it impacts the status and partcipation of women in society?