Replacing words like “women” with more gender-neutral language like “birth-giver” or “pregnant people” in research could have serious implications for women’s health, medical experts argue.
As governments and institutions move to make resources more gender-inclusive, 10 women’s health experts from the U.S., Europe and Asia say removing references to the sex of mothers could have damaging knock-on effects for women, according to an advance copy of a paper set to be published later this week obtained by Changing America.
“Desexing the language of female reproduction has been done with a view to being sensitive to individual needs and as beneficial, kind, and inclusive,” the authors write. “Yet, this kindness has delivered unintended consequences that have serious implications for women and children.”
Those consequences include “dehumanizing” mothers, the authors argue, because alternative, gender-inclusive terms typically involve body parts or physiological processes, like “lactating parents” in place of “breastfeeding.”
“Referring to individuals in this reduced, mechanistic way is commonly perceived as ‘othering’ and dehumanizing,” they write.
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Conversations about gender and pregnancy in the U.S. and elsewhere are often incredibly polarizing. When Missouri Rep. Cori Bush (D) last year used the term “birthing people” during a hearing, it ignited a firestorm of criticism online.
Later, in June, the White House’s 2022 fiscal year budget replaced the word “mothers” with “birthing people” in a section about public health funding.
“I’m not the ‘birthing person’ of five boys, I’m their mother,” Ann Romney, the wife of Utah Sen. Mitt Romney (R), tweeted shortly after the budget proposal was released. “The Biden Administration diminishing motherhood to ‘birthing person’ is simply insulting to all moms.”
According to the paper, which is due to be released in the journal Frontiers in Global Women’s Health, Romney may have a point.
Using gender-inclusive language in medical research and literature can reduce the visibility of women, the authors argue, and terms like “parents” or “families” as replacements for “mothers” can wrongly refer to fathers and other family members, effectively “diminishing and invisibilizing women.”
“Women have unique experiences, needs and rights in relation to pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding that are not shared with others,” the authors write. “It cannot be assumed that a woman’s interests will align with those of her husband or partner.”
The authors also argue that, in some cases, gender-neutral language could threaten the autonomy of women, and text referring to “birthing families” may suggest that other family members have rights regarding a woman’s decisions during and after birth.
In the context of medical research, sex-based language is critical “due to sex-based oppression,” Jenny Gamble, a professor of midwifery with Coventry University and one of the paper’s co-authors, told the Sydney Morning Herald.
“Confusing the idea of gender identity and the reality of sex risks adverse health consequences and deeper and more insidious discrimination against women,” she said. “Sex [a reproductive category], gender [a societal role], and gender identity [an inner sense of self] are not synonymous but are being treated as if they are.”
Gamble and her co-authors write that, in many cases, the use of gendered rather than sexed language is important to reinforce inclusivity and respect. Moving forward, a possible solution could be to develop a separate set of desexed materials for transgender and nonbinary people who do not identify as women.
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