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We must use the word “women” when we talk about abortion


The Republican assault on abortion and the broader campaign against bodily autonomy have led to a rhetorical amalgamation of two large constituencies impacted by both – cis women and trans men – into one “person with the ability to get pregnant “.

Most trans people understand the fundamental connection between their own struggle for self-determination and the lack of it in women. Likewise, many pro-abortion cis women support trans rights and appreciate the need to build solidarity around shared humanity. It all makes sense. But there has been an entirely unnecessary by-product of this rhetorical expansion: the subtraction of the word “women” from the discourse on abortion. This is unfortunate, as it fuels the misplaced fear, recently (and infamously) voiced by New York Times columnist Pamela Paul, that women are being “erased,” while unnecessarily alienating those who rightly see themselves as the intended and primary targets of abortion bans. The debate took place on a recent episode of WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show between Cornell University philosopher Kate Manne, the author of Down Girl: the logic of misogynyand a caller.

Joan in Brooklyn: “These attacks are meant to further the subjugation of women, and it’s really important that people understand that…. I think the same forces that are attacking abortion rights – there’s a whole campaign against trans people that needs to be fought. But at the same time, attacks on abortion rights are not aimed at trans men; they aim to force women into subjugation to patriarchal moral authority.

Manne: “I agree with you that the abortion bans we are seeing target women. But I think we can recognize that they also affect and victimize trans boys and men, intersex people, non-binary people who can get pregnant, and of course cis girls. So I don’t see any conflict between acknowledging that anti-abortion activism has always been about misogyny, has always been about policing and controlling women, but it affects a broader class of people.

The segment ended with Manne reiterating that she didn’t think it was that hard to use more inclusive language. Yet most evidence (and common sense) suggests that condescending to middle-aged women — who know it hard — new language that removes any mention of them from their lifelong struggle doesn’t work. It also risks shifting the conversation unproductively into trans-exclusive radical feminist terrain, hijacking an argument about patriarchal control and diverting it into a bad faith referendum on who a woman “really” is. So why die on this hill? The obvious compromise would seem to be to just say “women and anyone else who can get pregnant” or to recite the full list of affected parties. Instead, many very online activists, progressive organizations, and academics insist on clunky language that sounds like a convoluted fallback to avoid using the word “women.”

Additive language in the name of inclusivity is generally more effective than umbrella language, which is inherently reductive. The LGBTQIA+ community figured this out a long time ago, adding separate identities to an acronym and fittingly ending it with a plus sign. Umbrella language often fails. The gender-neutral term “Latinx” is rejected by the vast majority of people in America who identify as Latino or Hispanic, with three-quarters saying they haven’t even heard of the term, and only 4% at most l ‘list. as a favorite label. However, it delivered an effective message to Republicans, who weaponized it to portray Democrats as patronizing and out-of-touch elites. In a 2021 Newsweek editorial, writer Angel Eduardo explained that “Latinx” is not an extension of the demographic category but rather “almost exclusively a means of indicating a particular ideological bent”. Words then become the site of conflict, driven by the urgency of correcting people rather than reaching them.

It was never going to be possible for UC Berkeley law professor Khiara Bridges to reach Missouri Senator Josh Hawley when he called her out at a hearing for using the phrase ” people who can conceive. And although she managed to win a particular corner of the Internet by taking the author of Virility: The Masculine Virtues America Needs on the job, Hawley scored his own victory by looking like a women’s rights advocate, rather than the protofascist ghoul that he is. Bridges was right, of course, that it is possible to “recognize that this [abortion ban] has an impact on women while recognizing that it has an impact on other groups. These things are not mutually exclusive. In fact, that’s the whole point. So why not specifically mention the other bands?

By definition, generic terms sacrifice specificity for broader, technically accurate generalization. But there is a real loss of images and experience that is not factored into the equation. For example, when we use “persons of childbearing capacity” so as not to exclude children who have been raped (children who do not fall under the category of “women”), we mask the particular horror of their experience. for a dull, impersonal one. The same is true when we remove the unique experiences of “women” from a discourse that Manne and others agree are central.

Meera Deo, a professor at Southwestern Law School, argued something similar in her Virginia Law Review “Why BIPOC Fails” article, on the foregrounding and privileging of the Black and Indigenous experience across the spectrum of people of color: “While focusing on these two groups may make sense in particular contexts, it does not may not be true that every instance of race and racism should center the voices or experiences of Black and Indigenous people. Deo goes on to urge more precision in the name of accuracy: for example, “Black” when talking about police brutality; “Asian” for Covid-related hate crimes; “anti-Arabs” or “anti-Muslims” in reference to post-9/11 profiling, etc. As she puts it, “sometimes this will mean grouping groups together and naming them separately to others; whether it’s finding community through unity or standing apart to highlight distinctions, either option is better than BIPOC. The goal is to add granularity to better include different identities.

All language is limited. There is no perfect wording and it always involves compromises. In this case, it’s just an ampersand.