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Pro-choicers get into periodic debates over language. When talking about people who have abortions, what terminology should we use? The latest instance of this comes via Ophelia Benson, who hounded an abortion advocate for using “pregnant person” instead of “women,” to the point that said advocate had to block Benson.

So which is better, “pregnant person” or “woman?” There’s three critical things to consider when selecting a category: how many people you include when you shouldn’t, how many people you exclude when you shouldn’t, and the baggage that hovers around each choice.

By that metric, “women” is a terrible category to associate with abortion. I’m serious: the flip side of “three in ten women have an abortion[1]” is “seven in ten don’t.” The latter group have a myriad of reasons as to why, like flawless contraception use, sexual orientation (about 1.5% of women identify as lesbian[2]), infertility (roughly one in ten women of reproductive age have fertility issues, and a quarter of those are “involuntarily childless”[3][4]), or no desire for kids (one in sixteen are “voluntarily childless”[4]). By saying abortion is a woman’s issue, period, we’re wiping out all that diversity

We’re also feeding into existing stereotypes about how women exist only to get pregnant.[5] Few people seem to realize that a majority of women are fertile for roughly one week out of four during their reproductive years,[6] which only constitute a third of their lives.[7] Does it make sense to say a woman’s primary goal in life is to get pregnant if they’re incapable of that for eleven months for every twelve they exist?

“Pregnant women” is much more focussed, as it leaves out women who don’t want to or can’t get pregnant. Abortion can’t happen without a pregnancy, after all, though the reverse isn’t necessarily true; roughly four in ten pregnancies end in abortion, so even this choice is over-inclusive.[1] Still, it’s tough to find something better.

Take “people,” for instance. This removes the link with fertility, but it suffers from too much inclusion. Very few men will ever get pregnant, so by lumping them in we’re effectively diluting out both “women” and “pregnant women” with people who’ll never become pregnant. The only tic it has in favour is that it includes trans* men who get pregnant.[8] I don’t know how common that is, but it does happen. I am fairly confident they’d be more likely to abort if they became pregnant, if only because being pregnant is more likely to conflict with their identity.

Which brings us to “pregnant people.” This retains the advantages of “pregnant women,” plus it includes trans* men who become pregnant while excluding men who don’t. There’s also a strong moral reason to include pregnant trans* men.

Approximately half of respondents (52.8 percent) reported that they disclose their transgender status to most or all of their medical providers, and half (51.7 percent) had their preferred gender listed on at least some of their identification documents and records. Some type of discrimination at a doctor’s office or hospital was reported by 41.8 percent of the sample (28.1 percent reported being denied equal treatment, 31.8 percent reported verbal harassment, and 1.2 percent reported physical assault).[9]

Trans* men face a lot of discrimination in healthcare. By deliberately including them in one area of health, we’re making it easier for them to be included in other areas of health. We’re also making it easier for them to get an abortion and maintain their body image.

So when referring to abortion, “pregnant people” is the best category to use. Or at least, so I argue. Let’s give some counter-arguments a hearing.

I’m being told it doesn’t erase women to talk about pregnant people instead of women. Well if that’s true, it doesn’t erase women to talk about human rights instead of feminism, and we can all get on with our fun hobbies instead of being feminists. If that’s true, it’s fine to say “ALL lives matter” whenever you see something about Black Lives Matter.

First of all, “All Lives Matter” only exists to silence “Black Lives Matter.” This was made starkly clear by the death of Zachary Hammond, a white teen who was shot under questionable circumstances by the police. Many “Black Lives Matter” activists spoke up about the injustice, while the #alllivesmatter Twitter hashtag was largely silent.[10] Benson is either unaware of the context, or she’s insinuating that people who try to be more inclusive are in the same moral category as racists.

Let’s set that aside, though. “People” has the same type of relation to “women” as “all” has to “blacks,” it’s true, but as outlined above we rejected “people” as the inferior term and settled instead on “pregnant people.” For this analogy to apply, we’d have to put “pregnant people” in the same slot as “blacks” and “women” in the same slot as “all,” which flips the tables and reveals Benson to be the actual bigot here.

The same reasoning applies to “human rights” vs. “feminism,” so I’ll skip forward.

I think it’s a huge political mistake to talk about abortion rights in terms of “pregnant people” and “people who can get pregnant.” I think it’s a huge political mistake to drop women from the discussion in order to be inclusive to trans men (and gender fluid people and yadda yadda).

We haven’t excluded women or stopped discussing them, unless you don’t consider women to be people. This is a very strange stance for a feminist to take.

I think it’s a huge political mistake to drop women from the discussion in order to be inclusive to trans men (and gender fluid people and yadda yadda). The struggle over abortion rights is the way it is because of misogyny and sexism.

As is this. Is Benson implying trans* men don’t experience sexism, because they are men? I rather doubt it, as Benson’s also said this.

Trans men are harmed by misogyny too. It doesn’t help them to try to obscure the fact that attacks on abortion rights are highly political in a particular way – a sexist way, a misogynist way, an anti-women way. A trans man who needs an abortion is caught in a system that was organized to thwart women’s autonomy. If we start to obscure that fact, we start to lose the accumulated energy and power that feminism has painfully worked to gain over the past few decades.

The logic is a bit strange, though: trans* men are harmed by a sexist system, but because the system primarily harms women we must keep the argument focused on them. Why can’t we hit two birds with one stone, and do activism around the ways the system harms both? Or would Benson rather exclude trans* men from the abortion discussion, even though they too are effected?

Trans people have their own issues. I don’t see why we need to stop talking about women in order to talk about trans issues. I don’t see why we can’t do both.

“Trans people have their own issues.” It appears those issues, like abortion and reproductive health access, are different from the feminist issues of abortion and reproductive health access. Benson can’t get more exclusionary than that, shy of outright saying “I’m exclusionary.”

Anyway, while I was writing this Stephanie Zvan posted a similar-yet-different take. Jason Thibeault’s post is worth a read too. [HJH 2015-09-30] And Dana Hunter’s crafted an excellent addition of her own.


[1] https://www.guttmacher.org/media/presskits/abortion-US/statsandfacts.html

[2] Ward, Brian W., et al. “Sexual orientation and health among US adults: National Health Interview Survey, 2013.Natl Health Stat Report 77 (2014): 1-12.

[3] https://www.womenshealth.gov/publications/our-publications/fact-sheet/infertility.html

[4] Martinez, Gladys, Kimberly Daniels, and Anjani Chandra. “Fertility of men and women aged 15–44 years in the United States: National Survey of Family Growth.Natl Health Stat Report 2010.2012 (2006): 1-28.

[5] “Glosswitch.” “Our culture dehumanises women by reducing them all to breeders and non-breeders“. New Statesman, September 1st, 2014.

[6] http://yourfertility.org.au/for-women/timing-and-conception

[7] Do I really need to cite this one?

[8] https://www.google.ca/search?q=transgender+man+pregnant

[9] Shires, Deirdre A., and Kim Jaffee. “Factors Associated with Health Care Discrimination Experiences among a National Sample of Female-to-Male Transgender Individuals.Health & Social Work 40.2 (2015): 134-141.

[10] Wing, Nick. “A Cop Killed A White Teen And The #AllLivesMatter Crowd Said Nothing