What price are we paying for inclusive language about abortion?

I did a Twitter search this evening for “inclusive language abortion” and scrolled through the tweets featuring those words, posted in the last week. I found tweets from 40 different accounts, putting forward views for and against the use of “inclusive language” when discussing abortion rights.

Obviously, a twitter search is not a proper study. But it gives us a quick snapshot of who is talking about this question, what the balance of the discussion is, and what it might mean for the women at the sharp end of a new attack on abortion rights in some states of America (with the aim, as I understand it, of eventually bringing the issue back to the Supreme Court, with dangerous consequences for women in every state).

This tweet, from Fran Hutchins, is typical of the voices I found in support of the idea that it is important and desirable to discuss abortion in a more “inclusive” way:

costs you nothing

This tweet is typical for a few reasons:

  • it is written by a female person. Out of the 40 twitter users in my sample (from both ‘sides’ of the discussion), 35 were identifiable from their Twitter profiles and feeds as female – women, trans men and non-binary female people.
  • it is a “gentle reminder”. As such, it strikes perfectly the slightly condescending, didactic tone we have come to know and love from trans rights activists.
  • it positions its audience (women who are talking about an attack on their fundamental rights) as in some way privileged – you can easily afford to “include” trans men and non-binary people in your discussion, because it will apparently cost you nothing to do so.

I disagree – I think this kind of discussion is not only distracting and divisive, but inherently damaging to the cause of defending and extending abortion rights and women’s liberation in general.

Why is abortion a women’s issue?

“Female people” is a biological category. It includes all the people who are observed at (or before) birth to have female genitalia, indicating a female reproductive system.

“Women” is a social or political category. It includes all the people who are subject to oppression by structures and systems which exist to exploit their reproductive labour.

These categories contain exactly the same people, but they are not the same.

Feminists have been pointing out for decades, the myriad ways in which female infants become women. In some places, this process is nakedly violent from the start. In others it is a slower process, but no less thorough in its stripping from girls of their self-ownership. Everywhere, there are layers and layers of shame.

These processes are so ancient, and so widespread, that we all internalise them, to the extent that we hardly perceive them, even while they are happening to us.

Controlling and exploiting the reproductive labour of half the population requires women to lose control of our own sexuality, to lose connection with our bodies, and to lose our identification with each other, across generations, and across the many differences that we have allowed to divide us.

None of this is affected in the slightest by how individual people identify their gender, nor by an individual’s fertility. If you are a trans man, you have been subjected to the full force of this socialisation process, just as much as all other female people have. If you are a trans woman, you may (if you pass convincingly) experience the day-to-day effects of sexism, but you cannot know what that lifelong indoctrination into the subordinate role feels like. If you are non-binary, your relationship to the issue of abortion remains profoundly affected by your sex. If you are a woman who cannot bear children, you are no less affected by the structures of patriarchy than any other woman.

Politics is about power

“Women” is a political category. It identifies the result of our disempowerment by patriarchy. And it identifies the location of our struggle for liberation.

If we cannot talk about abortion – of all things – as an issue for women, we cannot create the solidarity we need to fight back.

Abortion affects female people, yes. But the way it affects us, in the rounded reality of our lives, is as women. Women forced to seek illegal abortions, or to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term, are doing so in the midst of lives where they are already burdened with the vast bulk of the caring and cleaning, targeted with objectification and harassment, and dismissed as airheaded, moody, slutty, bitchy, or one of the thousands of other slurs reserved only for women. And without that fundamental control over our own bodies, asserting our human dignity against these injustices is immeasurably harder.

Women’s access to abortion has been hard won, where we have it, by women engaging in political struggle. Because control of women’s fertility is the cornerstone of the whole edifice. Every woman, whether or not she ever has or ever will need an abortion, is more free in places where we have abortion rights.

Whose interests are served by women policing each other’s language?

It’s not a coincidence that the overwhelming majority of the people talking about this “inclusive language” question are female. Female people are trained from birth to be kind, to take responsibility for including everyone and looking after the feelings of male people, and to use emotional manipulation to keep each other in line.

I have no doubt that trans men and non-binary female people need abortion rights, as much as we all do. But insisting on “inclusive language” actually makes it harder to defend and extend those rights, by obscuring the political nature of the fight. This is not a debate about ‘people with wombs’. It is about pushing back the rights women have gained through understanding the structural nature of our own oppression. We don’t need any more “gentle reminders” to be kind and inclusive.

If you are female, or if you call yourself a feminist, these abortion laws give you no choice but to pick a side – stand with women, or step aside.

3 thoughts on “What price are we paying for inclusive language about abortion?

  1. That clarification of the categories “female people” and “women”, and how the membership is the same but the categories are different… thank you so much for giving me such a clear explanation of what I think but couldn’t articulately express.

    Liked by 1 person

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