Monthly Archives: November 2013

Pregnant women, pregnant people

This is a piece about whether or not feminists should use the terms “pregnant women” or “pregnant people” when discussing reproductive rights. I know that, for many, it will seem an odd thing to be discussing at all. Either you believe only women can get pregnant (therefore it’s “pregnant women”) or you include trans men and those who identify as genderqueer (in which case it’s “pregnant people”). Moreover, if you accept this premise, it could be fair to say that anyone who uses “pregnant women” is denying the existence of pregnant non-women (and therefore might reasonably be accused of transphobia). I think this is all very straightforward and neat. Unfortunately I also don’t think that, on a practical level, it works.
There are many of us who feel that retaining the word “woman” in all discussions of reproductive rights matters a great deal, even if such rights belong to everyone. I am one such person. When we talk about abortion it’s vital that we keep talking about women.
This is not about blindly adhering to a binary concept of gender that ultimately harms us all. It’s about naming the problem and avoiding the double discrimination that comes with having the language that defines oppression taken from you. Reproductive rights are fundamentally defined by misogynist concepts of “womanhood”. If this is not acknowledged in the terms we use — if we speak as though those who don’t regard women as complete human beings with complete control over their bodies share the same fluid readings of gender that we do — then we’re denying all those affected by rights restrictions the very space upon which to argue their cause. We’re saying that it’s all a matter of whether or not you can conceive when this clearly isn’t the case.
To frame abortion, breastfeeding, birth choices etc. as “people’s issues” rather than “women’s issues” is straightforwardly dishonest. The discrimination faced by all those who identify as women — regardless of whether or not they could become pregnant — is shaped by a reading of sex and gender that sees “breeders” as lesser beings (and all those who are in some way identified with “the feminine” — and this ends up being everyone apart from cis men — are affected by this). The question “if cis men got pregnant, would abortion still be an issue?” remains a pertinent one because abortion restrictions are based not on how we view the fetus, but on the status of the gravida. This is why, for instance, no one is forced to give blood or donate bone marrow. Forced physical self-sacrifice in order to perpetuate the lives of others isn’t seen as a “people’s” issue — if it was, those who could get pregnant would enjoy far more freedom than they currently do.
Debates on reproductive rights are frequently derailed by sniping over who is “allowed” to speak. It’s my belief that no one should have a say on any abortion other than the individual whose body it affects (this is not to say consultation with others is inherently a bad thing — so many factors go into whether or not carrying a pregnancy to term is possible that in most cases such consultation is vital — but the final word should belong to one person only). The gender identity of the person choosing whether or not to have an abortion is an utter irrelevancy. It’s their body, their choice (I despair of the way in which this phrase, so fundamental, is cast as glib or trivial). However — and this is, to some, a massive however — it needs also to be understood that the status of all women (trans or cis, fertile or not) is affected by what we do and do not permit fertile people with wombs to do. To restrict the broader abortion debate to “cis women, trans men and those who identify as genderqueer” isn’t fair. It’s about how women are perceived. It’s about what the term women even means.
I for one am not willing to debate abortion with men using language that suggests we’re on the same footing (which is what substituting “people” for “women” ultimately does). I’m not prepared to suggest the global impact of abortion restriction applies to everyone equally. It doesn’t. Cis women face the impact of abortion restriction more than anyone else insofar as they’re the only ones who are shoved into both the material and the hypothetical categories — ”may need an abortion” and “woman therefore breeder by default” — at the same time. This is not to say the restriction is “worse” for them or that there is no such thing as cis privilege, but that cis women are at the front line of this particular battle. Winning it depends on a transformation in how they are seen by all those who are not cis women (and by that I don’t just mean cis men).
A failure to take the experience of pregnancy seriously isn’t just to do with how we see pregnancy. It’s to do with how seriously we take women’s experience — so often seen as trivial and unimportant — overall. An unwanted pregnancy is only seen as a non-event, a minor inconvenience, because it is seen in the context of unimportant (female) life. It’s not just about bodies, but about the lived experience of being a woman (cis or trans). Standing up for abortion rights goes hand in hand with standing up for women’s rights. Failing to acknowledge this isn’t being inclusive; it’s refusing to challenge the very prejudices that hold all of us back.