‘Inclusive’ language on maternity care risks excluding many women
Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett’s article emphasised the importance of respectful, individualised maternity care, including in the language used to address transgender people (The language of maternity is alive and well – so why not expand it to include trans parents, 5 May). This idea is entirely uncontroversial. What has become contentious, however, is whether terms like “women” and “mothers” should be used in a broader sense, including in health communication and policy or replaced with other words that do not reference the female sex.
It is a well-established principle of communication that the sex of individuals should be made visible when relevant and should not be made visible when not. This ensures that sex-related needs and issues are not overlooked and sex stereotyping is avoided. As I and others outline in a recent paper in Frontiers in Global Women’s Health, when discussing inherently sexed processes like pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding, there are risks to desexing language.
Avoiding “women” and “mothers” can decrease inclusivity by requiring use of technical, more difficult to understand language. For example, when “women” is replaced with “people with a cervix”, this aids misunderstanding, particularly for those with low literacy or learning difficulties, or who are non-English speakers. Alternative terms for “women” that refer to reproductive body parts or processes such as “uterus havers”, “birthers” or “menstruators” are recognised as dehumanising and so to be avoided.
Communicating statistics when language is desexed is fraught, as the NHS discovered when it wrote about how “8 in 10 people” will get pregnant after having unprotected sex. When communications refer to “parents” rather than “mothers”, the uniqueness of the mother-newborn relationship can be more easily overlooked.
Far from a moral panic, there are real implications to desexing language when referring to inherently sexed processes and states. Thoughtful, careful discussion and consideration on this subject is needed.
Prof Jenny Gamble Coventry University
Dr Karleen Gribble Western Sydney University
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