‘People’ don’t get pregnant, women do

The BMA's new guidelines undermine the fight for women's autonomy.

Ella Whelan

Ella Whelan

Topics Politics

The British Medical Association has issued new guidelines to its staff on discriminatory language. ‘A Guide to Effective Communication: Inclusive Language in the Workplace’, the 12-page booklet sent to all employees, describes, in detail, the ways in which staff should change their language to suit ‘an increasingly diverse society’.

These changes range from the banal to the bizarrely obvious. The guide encourages staff to switch the words ‘spastic’ and ‘mongol’ for ‘person with learning difficulties’ – a handy tip for all the BMA staff who still use the word ‘mongol’. It also suggests replacing the term ‘old people’ with ‘older citizens’, and ‘manpower’ with ‘staff, workforce, personnel, workers’.

The most bizarre suggestion is that staff should no longer refer to pregnant women as ‘expectant mothers’. Instead, pregnant women are to be referred to as ‘pregnant people’. The guide explains why: ‘A large majority of people that have been pregnant or have given birth identify as women. However, there are some intersex men and trans men who may get pregnant.’ In order to accommodate people who identify as male while pregnant, the BMA is suggesting that any reference to female gender while discussing pregnancy should be removed.

This is absurd. The number of pregnant transgender men is incomparable with the number of pregnant women. The idea that such a drastic change of language should therefore be enforced is completely blowing things out of proportion. What’s more, not only is the BMA instructing staff to refrain from using certain words, it is by connection asking them to adhere to a particular view about gender and sexuality.

All this aside, the BMA’s new guidelines cloud what remains a women’s issue. In removing any mention of the idea of ‘motherhood’ or gender-specific language from discussion of a woman’s pregnancy, the BMA is de-specialising what pregnancy is. Pregnancy is a thing that happens to females – it is, of course, important for both men and women, fathers and mothers, but while the pregnancy is taking place, it is happening within a woman’s body.

This is an important distinction. Suggesting that ‘people’ get pregnant, and that ‘people’ have to deal with pregnancies, assumes that women are equal to men in this regard. But, of course, women do not enjoy the same bodily autonomy as men. Under UK law, abortion is still illegal, and is only permissible on the condition that two doctors agree that having a child would impact on the woman’s mental or physical health, and that the abortion takes place before 24 weeks. The 1967 Abortion Act quite clearly states that this law applies to ‘pregnant women’.

In this way, women are still discriminated against by law; women suffer greater restrictions on their bodies than men do. Therefore, the idea that a ‘pregnant person’ can have an abortion is not only confusing, it ignores the fact that abortion is an issue of women’s freedom. It is paramount that we continue to talk about women’s bodies, women’s abortion rights and women’s freedom when it comes to pregnancy, because it is women who are locked up for procuring abortions illegally, women who are told what to eat, drink and do while they’re pregnant, and women who are still held as the primary caregivers for children. Removing the word ‘woman’ or ‘mother’ from the lexicon used during pregnancy denies these facts.

If an intersex man or transgender individual wants to be referred to as male throughout their pregnancy, they should feel comfortable asking. And, as most people want to be polite, friendly and accommodating, it’s more than likely that their wishes will be met. But de-gendering the language used by medical professionals entirely is a step too far. Not only does it deny employees’ freedom of speech, or the facts of basic biology, it’s damaging to women’s fight for freedom.

Being pregnant shouldn’t be political, but it is. Pregnancies will remain central to women’s fight for freedom and bodily autonomy until women are free to choose what they want to do with their bodies. While abortion is still illegal, and while pregnant mothers are still scrutinised, penalised and judged for their lifestyle choices, pregnancy will remain a women’s issue. Denying that fact is denying the injustices women still face today.

The BMA’s attempt to appear right-on has revealed the deeply divisive and reactionary nature of identity politics. In trying to accommodate one minority group, it has sidelined and denigrated the fight for freedom for half the population. All people – pregnant or not – should condemn this illiberal and idiotic idea.

Ella Whelan is assistant editor at spiked. Follow her on Twitter: @Ella_M_Whelan

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Topics Politics


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