A war on whom? The importance of inclusive reproductive justice conversations.
What would it mean for our language, messaging, and rhetoric if I told you that not all those under attack in the “war on women” are women?
Rhetorically, “war on women” is a useful phrase. It’s concise, catchy, and bold – all factors that contribute to its potential to be politically mobilizing. But in reference to legislative attacks on abortion access, it’s not entirely accurate. In fact, it’s unintentionally marginalizing. Although they do overlap, the categories “women” and “people who can get pregnant” are not the same. Some trans men, genderqueer, and gender non-conforming folk can and do get pregnant and are therefore directly harmed by legislation that restricts their access to abortion. (For explanations of gender identity-related terminology, check these out!) There are also many women, including trans women, who cannot get pregnant. In using “women” as shorthand for people who can get pregnant, the phrase “war on women” erases the existence of many transgender, genderqueer, and gender-nonconforming people.
This unintentionally marginalizing language makes invisible those who, due to pervasive institutional and interpersonal discrimination, often face the greatest barriers to accessing reproductive health care and are thus the most harmed by anti-choice legislation. For example, with 20% of transgender individuals in need of or at risk of needing shelter, high rates of homelessness among transgender youth make parental consent laws particularly prohibitive.1 Moreover, nearly 50% of trans individuals have been fired, denied a promotion, or not hired due to employer bias against them, and trans individuals are also almost four times more likely than the general population to have a household income of less than $10,000 a year.2 Such extreme poverty and systematic exclusion from employment can make paying for abortion care a likely and significant obstacle. Finally, widespread discrimination in health care settings can make it hard to find appropriate, respectful abortion care and sometimes impossible to find any care at all; almost 20% of trans individuals have been refused medical care because of their gender non-conforming or transgender status, and 28% have postponed care when injured or sick due to fear of discrimination.2 An absolutely fundamental part of a social justice perspective is prioritizing the needs of those at the margins, the most discriminated against, the most oppressed. As such, a social or reproductive justice framework demands trans inclusive language.
In advocating for an expanded framing of abortion as an issue affecting not just cis women, but all people who can get pregnant, I don’t mean to minimize the sexism (in addition to the cissexism) inherent to these anti-choice laws and the accompanying slut-shaming rhetoric, because these laws are part of a larger war on all women. As the journalist and activist s.e. smith put it,
“…there is, very specifically, a war on women, cis and trans, going on in US society right now, and while it is linked with the reproductive rights debate, it is not identical; the war on reproductive rights overlaps but is not synonymous. Much of the language surrounding attacks on reproductive rights is deeply misogynist and rooted in attitudes about women, and this needs to be addressed, of course, but it’s not the only thing going on here.
Attacks on reproductive rights are part of a larger culture that devalues women; women make less than men, are more vulnerable to crime, and face a host of other social problems. This is particularly true of nonwhite women, disabled women, queer women, and women of colour. These issues are exacerbated by political activities and policies, and we need to be talking about those, the very specific misogyny-rooted issues happening.”
The war on women encompasses the intersectional effects of racism, classism, ableism, heterosexism, and cissexism on women from all walks of life. Attacks on the rights of people who can get pregnant are part of that war, but not limited to it. As Jasper from Trans* Repro Justice writes, “It’s important to remember that the sexist and cissexist system that seeks to control the sexuality, bodies, and reproduction of those it perceives to be women is the same system that actively targets the identities, bodies, reproduction, and sexualities of trans* people.”
I firmly believe that one collective’s liberation should not and cannot come at the expense of contributing to another’s oppression. As such, sacrificing the phrase “war on women” in order to recognize the existence and humanity of transgender, genderqueer, and gender-nonconforming individuals feels absolutely necessary to me. (Of course, trans inclusive language is only one part of a conversation about building an inclusive reproductive justice movement. Broadening our understanding of what constitutes a reproductive justice issue and building coalitions among groups that address a diversity of these issues are necessary steps as well.)
But what language should we use? I’ve heard a good number of potential alternatives to “women” floating around, many of which raise issues of their own.
- “Uterus-bearer,” while gender-neutral, runs the risk of dehumanizing people by reducing them to their reproductive organs.
- I like that “Uterus-owner” implies that I, as the owner of my uterus, should alone have sovereignty over it. At the same time, this term reduces people to their anatomy, and certainly commodifies uteri.
- “People with uteri” improves upon the two previous terms by putting the person first. But still, not all people with uteri can get pregnant…
- So ultimately, I think the most accurate term is “people who can get pregnant.” Laws restricting access to abortion are attacks on people who can get pregnant.
I welcome the opportunity to have a conversation with you about this phrase in particular as well as about inclusive language within reproductive justice activism more generally. How can we, the Network, be a leader in this important conversation? Please post your thoughts, reactions and ideas for and about inclusive language in the comments section. I look forward to hearing your responses and engaging in a dialogue with you around this issue.
Meagan Morse is a Health Information Intern at the NWHN and a senior at Brown University, where she studies the social contexts of health and disease.
- Ray, N. (2006). "Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth: An epidemic of homelessness." New York: National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute and the National Coalition for the Homeless. http://www.thetaskforce.org/downloads/HomelessYouth.pdf
- Grant, Jaime M., Lisa A. Mottet, Justin Tanis, Jack Harrison, Jody L. Herman, and Mara Keisling. "Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey." Washington: National Center for Transgender Equality and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, 2011. http://www.thetaskforce.org/downloads/reports/reports/ntds_summary.pdf