Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday 27 October 2021

 Why I’ll Keep Saying ‘Pregnant Women’

Being inclusive is important. But it’s not everything.

October 26, 2021

A pregnant person.


Who can get pregnant? It sounds like a trick question. For centuries, English speakers have talked about “pregnant women” without a second thought, but a vocal and growing movement wants to replace that phrase with the more inclusive pregnant people. And because the United States hasn’t yet found an issue it can’t turn into a polarized debate, a partisan divide has already formed. The received wisdom is now that a good liberal should always say “pregnant people,” if only because it upsets Tucker Carlson.

I disagree. Language evolves, and inclusion for transgender people matters. But for now I will keep using pregnant women in almost all circumstances.

Pregnant people is a relatively new phrase. Google’s Ngram viewer, which trawls English-language books dating back to 1800, finds absolutely no trace of it before 1978, and a sharp spike in the past decade. It now appears in CNN headlines, Planned Parenthood advice, Washington Post columns, and CDC guidelines on COVID-19 vaccination. Its usage reflects a growing awareness that not everyone who gets pregnant defines themselves as a woman—transgender men and nonbinary people can give birth too. (Nonbinary is itself a very recent coinage; the usage examples given in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary date back only to 2015.) Using more inclusive language, the American Civil Liberties Union’s deputy legal director, Louise Melling, recently told my colleague Emma Green, “should do a fair amount of work to help address discrimination. If we talk about ‘pregnant people,’ it’s a reminder to all of us to catch ourselves when we’re sitting in the waiting room at the GYN that we’re not going to stare at the man who’s there.”

At first glance, the shift to pregnant people seems like a natural extension of feminism’s second wave, which was keenly aware of how language reflected and shaped sexist assumptions about women’s lives and careers. Removing needless gender markers was part of the feminist project. Campaigners objected to the use of mankind in textbooks about humans of both sexes, they coined Ms. to give women an honorific that didn’t reveal their marital status, and they argued for changing references to firemen, chairmen, and newspapermen because women could hold those jobs too.

There was, inevitably, a backlash. Remaking language was deemed threatening and trivial—an outrageous imposition and a distraction from real problems. In 1985, the New York Times columnist William Safire insisted that there was no need to say “he or she,” because “historically, the male usage has embraced the female.” The newspaper backed him, running an unsigned editorial protesting that “non-sexist language” had gone too far, warning that it would end with “the ultimate absurdity in nomenclature,” which was replacing woman with woperson. Correspondents replied that this would surely lead in turn to woperdaughter, leading the Times to conclude in another editorial that “trying to force values onto language, however virtuous they may be, obviously seethes with absurdity.”

Woperdaughter never caught on, but then, it was a deliberately extreme example dreamed up by letter writers so that they could be offended by it. Overall, the advocates for change triumphed, and Douglas Hofstadter’s now-classic parody “A Person Paper on Purity in Language,” also published in 1985, suggests why. Hofstadter, writing in the persona of “William Satire,” imagined a world in which common words referred to race instead of gender—think firewhite instead of fireman. Defending that status quo with mock indignation, he showed how bizarre, patronizing, and reactionary the opponents of gender-neutral language sounded. “It’s high time someone blew the whistle on all the silly prattle about revamping our language to suit the purposes of certain political fanatics,” he wrote, scoffing at the notion “that using the word ‘white,’ either on its own or as a component, to talk about all the members of the human species is somehow degrading to blacks and reinforces racism … There is great beauty to a phrase such as ‘All whites are created equal.’” The essay makes its point elegantly, and most of us now talk about firefighters and clergy without feeling that we are making a political statement.

Given all the effort feminists have invested in making language more equitable, you might expect that they would welcome use of the term pregnant people. But some, including me, are concerned that it obscures the social dynamics at work in laws surrounding contraception, abortion, and maternal health. The argument for the second wave’s language changes was that women fought fires in the exact same way as men, so one word should cover both sexes. That’s a different decision from whether we should keep gendered language to reflect heavily gendered experiences. Earlier this month, the British Pregnancy Advice Service announced that it would continue to use pregnant women—while also stressing that it runs trans-inclusive services—because “from choice in childbirth to access to emergency contraception, our reproductive rights are undermined precisely because these are issues that affect women.”

Perhaps a comparison will help. The same progressives who push for pregnant people have no problem saying “Black Lives Matter”—and in fact decry the right-wing rejoinder that “all lives matter.” Yet, hopefully, all lives do matter—and about half of the people shot by U.S. police are white. So why insist on Black? Because the phrase is designed to highlight police racism, as well as the disproportionate killing of Black men in particular. Making the slogan more “inclusive” also makes it useless for political campaigning.

Pregnant people does the same. The famous slogan commonly attributed to the second-wave activist Florynce Kennedy—“If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament”—would be totally defanged if it were made gender-neutral. And if we cannot talk about, say, the Texas abortion law in the context of patriarchal control of women’s bodies, then framing the feminist case against such laws becomes harder. No more “men making laws about women.” Instead we get: “Some people who are in charge of policy want to restrict the rights of some other people. We oppose that because people’s rights are human rights!”

Simplicity, clarity, and effectiveness are paramount when language is used in political arguments. Many of the recent attempts to take women out of the abortion conversation result in gibberish—a word salad that helps no one. A few weeks ago, the ACLU gave a vivid demonstration of the problem when it amended Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s famous legal opinion to read: “The decision whether or not to bear a child is central to a [person’s] life, to [their] well-being and dignity … When the government controls that decision for [people], [they are] being treated as less than a fully adult human responsible for [their] own choices.” Inspiring! Put that on a T-shirt.

The ACLU’s executive director has since apologized for that tweet, saying that rewriting Ginsburg was an error. But the organization wasn’t alone in trying out the new orthodoxy and then realizing how useless it can be for making a political point. Here is the snap reaction from Joe Biden’s Twitter account to an outrageous law that promises private citizens a bounty for turning in anyone who helps a vulnerable woman procure an abortion: “Texas law SB8 will significantly impair people’s access to the health care they need—particularly for communities of color and individuals with low incomes,” wrote Biden (or, more likely, a young staffer). “We are deeply committed to the constitutional right established in Roe v. Wade and will protect and defend that right.”

This is an inch away from the kind of anemic corporate speak that promises to circle back with stakeholders on this quarter’s key performance indicators. Another way to write the Biden tweet would be: “The new Texas abortion law is an attack on women and their right to receive medical care. It will hurt poor women most, and Black women, and Latina women. We will defend the constitutional right to abortion.” In politics, making a point that most people can’t understand is not very inclusive. (Presumably, the White House agrees with me, because Biden’s later statements used the word women.)

Substituting people for women might emphasize women’s humanity—as some have argued—but it does so at the cost of obliterating the history and theoretical basis of feminism. Yes, women are people. But they are a particular kind of people, the kind of people who have historically been denied the vote, not allowed to own property, excluded from higher education and professional careers, beaten into submission by their partners, and paid lower wages. These things did not happen by coincidence. They were part of a social order—patriarchy—that controlled and monitored female sexual purity and reproduction. Dismantling that system is not as simple as declaring women to be people too and then retiring in triumph. To combat a problem, you have to be able to name it.

This is my position on pregnant people: It’s fine! I have no issue with someone writing about their own experience of miscarriage, or IVF treatment, or parenting, or their shoe size suddenly increasing at 28 weeks and talking about their kinship with other pregnant people. But—and this is crucial—saying “pregnant women” in those situations isn’t grievously wrong either. It’s the language that every adult alive today grew up using, and for 99 percent of English speakers, it’s the language with which they are most familiar. You can argue that the newer phrase is preferable without having to insist that the old one is hateful and its use is slam-dunk evidence of bigotry.

Moving language forward by decree is difficult, unless you’re in one of those dictatorships where the supreme leader renames January after himself. Yet in Britain, where I live, the prime driver of a certain type of trans-inclusive language is not grassroots demand but the lobbying organization Stonewall. It has successfully recommended the removal of gendered language to corporations, universities, police forces, regulators, charities, and government departments, many of which also pay Stonewall a fee to be celebrated as “diversity champions,” according to a recent BBC investigation. Forcing through rapid linguistic change like this freaks people out because they sense that reality itself is shifting—and because language then becomes a test you can fail, even if you don’t mean any harm. To regular people not steeped in the culture wars, discovering that common phrases are now off-limits feels like being expected to know which cutlery to use—an etiquette code set by the rich and well educated.

Perhaps you think that’s unfair, that pregnant people is just a small tweak to language and tweaking language is the least we can do to help marginalized communities. Okay, but we don’t talk about “ejaculators” or “testicle havers” dominating the Texas legislature. We don’t note that only sperm-shooters have ever been president of the United States. Prostate Cancer UK can use the hashtag #MenWeAreWithYou, whereas the medical journal The Lancet talks about “bodies with vaginas” lacking access to hygiene products during their periods. (Sensibly, rather than overhauling its entire vocabulary, Prostate Cancer UK offers some dedicated resources for trans women.) The new rules of language are patchily applied, and deciding when to be maximally inclusive is itself a political choice. Some progressives use pregnant people reflexively, because they assume anything that offends Ted Cruz must be good.

That background makes pregnant people look like an arbitrary shibboleth—a signal that you belong to the correct political tribe. And that is dangerous, because instead of ushering in a new and helpful phrase by explaining and encouraging its use, progressives have turned it into a political purity test. It’s the soup spoon of language. Some in the political middle ground would have happily accepted a calm, reasonable argument in favor of pregnant people but will now regard saying it as a capitulation, a humiliation, an insult—forced deference to values that they do not share.

In the past few years, I’ve become more open to talking about “pregnant people.” It’s not one of those pieces of avant-garde terminology that risks baffling readers who don’t have a Ph.D. in gender studies. Everyone understands what it means, and using it won’t confuse anyone about who is being discussed. I am, however, more skeptical of other ostensibly inclusive language suggestions related to female bodies, such as public-awareness campaigns targeting “people with cervixes.” As Britain’s recent unedifying debate on that subject showed, even senior politicians don’t know what a cervix is or who has one. The Labour Party’s justice spokesman, David Lammy, thought that “a cervix is something you can have following various procedures, hormone treatment, all the rest of it.” (It is not. It is a distinctive physiological structure that keeps the uterus sterile and supports a pregnancy, and it is not constructed as part of a vaginoplasty.) Again, language is not very inclusive if the majority of people don’t understand it. Imagine seeing a poster in a doctor’s office urging “anyone with a cervix” to get a cancer screening, and ask yourself: Might some patients not realize that the message applies to them?

If I’m talking about someone who doesn’t identify as a woman, I would call them a “pregnant person.” That’s common courtesy. I might also use pregnant people as a general term if it feels appropriate—and other people will quite defensibly draw that particular line in a different place from me. Being a minority using services designed for the majority is always hard, whether you are a male breast-cancer patient, a woman experiencing hair loss, a man giving birth, or a woman trying to find work boots to fit her small feet. Inclusion and acceptance are legitimate political goals. But they are not the only goals.

When it comes to this battle, I believe in the right to choose. And I will keep using pregnant women when talking about abortion laws that restrict women’s freedom, and the toll of rape in war zones, and medicine’s lack of research into female bodies. In those cases, trans men and nonbinary people are being swept up in a fight we need to name: the war on women.

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