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29 September 2015updated 05 Oct 2023 8:35am

The problem with talking about “pregnant people”

Gender-neutral language around reproduction creates the illusion of dismantling a hierarchy – when what you really end up doing is ignoring it.

By Glosswitch

“If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.” Rarely has the hypocrisy surrounding abortion been captured as succinctly as in Florynce Kennedy’s 1971 quote. In an easily tweetable 57 characters Kennedy captures the arbitrariness of the relationship between sex, power and reproduction, identifying gender – as opposed to biology, religion or foetal viability – as the reason why women cannot access terminations. The problem, we see, is not what pregnancy is, but where women are situated within a social, cultural and economic hierarchy. It’s a quote that still has resonance today, or rather, it would have, were it not for the fact that its basic premise has been proven false. Men can get pregnant; abortion, on the other hand, remains as stigmatised as ever.

Just how many men do bear children is not especially clear. Last November it was reported that 54 Australian men had given birth over the past year. The US citizen Thomas Beattie was the first legally registered man to bear a child in 2007, while in 2012 Pink News reported on the first UK male to give birth. Writing in the Huffington Post, Trevor MacDonald suggest that “trans, genderqueer and intersex people have been giving birth for as long as women-identified people have.” Certainly, the pregnant body pays no heed to how an individual self-defines.

One might ask where this leaves a feminist analysis of the power relations governing reproductive choice. “Reduced to a bit of a fudge” would be the most honest answer. We know that reproduction is a feminist issue; we’re just no longer sure how, at least not if it has nothing to do with a class defined by assumed reproductive potential. So we’re left with a situation in which most of the things feminists write and say about reproduction would be classed as cissexist, yet if you pushed them on this issue, most would claim to support a more gender-neutral approach. But gender neutrality comes at a cost to the rhetorical punch achieved by quotes such as Kennedy’s. It shifts the focus away from gender as a means by which female bodies are controlled and problematises bodies themselves. Hence one witnesses an uneasy hovering between different linguistic options, between the desire to be all-encompassing and the need to say what one really means.

Occasionally this tension comes to a head. For instance, last year the Midwives Alliance of North America (MANA) changed some of the language in its core competencies document to refer to “pregnant people” as opposed to “women” (although there is still one reference to the latter). In August this year an organisation calling themselves Woman-Centred Midwifery delivered an Open Letter to MANA in protest at the changes, arguing that they constituted “the erasure of women from the language of birth”. The signatories include Ina May Gaskin, one of the most well-known advocates for natural birthing choices. Her involvement has shocked and disappointed many, to the extent that some have petitioned for her to be removed from the Birth and Beyond Conference speakers’ list. After all, why should language that is more neutral be seen as politically objectionable? If the object is to make the terms more inclusive, surely they still cover the people they included before?

It is very easy to dismiss Women-Centred Midwifery as the bad guys in all this. First of all, they’ve called themselves “woman-centred”. Nobody calls themselves “woman-centred” unless they’re a 1970s throwback, belonging to an age when feminism was drab, unenlightened and too busy eating its own afterbirth to get anything done. Kicking up a fuss over words such as “people” seems, on the face of it, just plain mean. Surely we can leave the wimmin-only tactics where they belong: with Millie Tant on the pages of Viz. After all, who wants to be the kind of person who talks about “the life-giving power of female biology” with a straight face?

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And yet I think there is a problem with neutral language and it’s one which we desperately need to address. Ever since feminists declared, contra Freud, that biology is not destiny, we’ve been getting ourselves in a terrible mess over what we actually mean. If sex is a construct and the measure of a woman is not whether she has the desire and/or capacity to give birth, what does our reproductive potential, so often used against us, signify in relation to our experience of oppression?

For many of us, posing this question at all has been overwhelming. “Biology,” writes Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, “came to be viewed by women as a field sown with mines, best avoided altogether.” Or, as Adrienne Rich put it, “the body has been made so problematic for women that it has often seemed easier to shrug it off and travel as a disembodied spirit”. Except one cannot really do this when discussing conception, pregnancy and birth. Here, the difference between bodies starts to matter. Moreover, it’s a difference that is crucial to how gender operates. We cannot simply overlook it and hope for the best.

Sex might be a construct – I sincerely doubt that anyone thinks people with wombs have the word “FEMALE” imprinted in their bones, like in a stick of rock – but it is one that has emerged from the identification of reproductive difference (both real and potential). To quote the philosopher Janet Radcliffe Richards, “as a matter of logic, before you can justify a group’s activities by reference to its general characteristics, you first need a justification for its acting as a single group at all, rather than (say) joining with a larger group, splitting into smaller ones, or having everyone act as individuals.” Man and woman exist, not as essentially gendered flesh, but as linguistic entities and political categories arising from an observed, if imprecisely defined, distinction. Of course, distinctions can change, but in this case any change has been minimal; we still know that some people are likely to be able to get pregnant and some people aren’t. Whatever we call them, whether or not we can always tell who they are by looking, we still have a sense of who “those people” are and where to situate them in a gender hierarchy.

If one looks at how gender functions, not as a means of self-definition, but as a class system, the gender-neutral pregnancy starts to feel akin to John Major’s “classless society”. It’s a way of using language to create the illusion of dismantling a hierarchy when what you really end up doing is ignoring it. Pregnancy is a gendered experience, not because pregnant individuals necessarily feel like women, but because the pregnant body is externally managed within the context of its subordinate sex class status. Because if it had a different status, “abortion [and free birthing choices, epidurals and caesareans on demand, investment into more and better pregnancy care etc.] would be a sacrament.” We need a way of talking about this which is permitted to prioritise the sex-class reading of gender over the identity-based one, not as way of excluding people, but as a way of naming what happens to them and others in the context of class-based oppression.

In Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?, Katrine Marçal describes our tendency to discuss humanity as though it were “created outside class, gender, race, age, background and experience – rather than through class, gender, race, age, background and experience”:

“Instead we see circumstances, the body and context as layers that have to be peeled away. They cloud the vision. If we want to talk about how things really are, we must abstract how things really are, we think.

But being human is experienced precisely through a gender, a body, a social position, and the backgrounds and experiences we have. There is no other way.”

The pregnant body is not an isolated, solipsistically self-defining object. It exists in time, within a specific social, historical and political context. One can argue over whether or not gender exists as an apolitical entity; whether to be a woman is to identify or be identified as one. Our most immediate challenge, however, concerns whether all pregnant individuals are seen as people, not whether all pregnant people are seen as women. In order to address this we need to talk about women as a class. Gender-neutral terms limit our ability to do this. Whatever our intentions, neutralising language is not a neutral act.

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