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Using Inclusive Language in Abortion Care is Essential

By Aspen Ruhlin (they/them), Client Advocate at Mabel Wadsworth Center

The current political climate is saturated with problematic sound bites and overly simplistic messaging about abortion rights, leading to confusion, division, and stigma. Well-intentioned politicians and supporters can unintentionally harm marginalized groups, at a time when we should be centering those communities. The topic of using inclusive language to discuss reproductive and sexual health, particularly around abortion care, is not a new one by any stretch of the imagination. Anyone involved in this movement or work has had this conversation before, be it at conferences, in activist circles, or at their local clinic. It is because of these long-term conversations, along with feedback from our trans clients, that Mabel Wadsworth Center decided to shift towards gender-inclusive language when describing all of our care. While this conversation has been long-lived and the importance made clear, there are still those who choose to use language that not only prioritizes cis women in a way that erases the experiences of trans people, but also centers whiteness.

For many pro choice cis white women, their stance can be boiled down to the often heard phrase, “a woman’s right to choose [between abortion and continuing a pregnancy].” While the right to choose between those options is absolutely important, it simplifies a large topic in such a way that many relevant parties are left excluded. One example that we can see with this is the framework “reproductive justice,” coined by SisterSong, a women of color reproductive justice collective. They define the term as: “the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.” Black, Indigenous, and other women of color are far more likely to have their children unjustly removed from them by a white supremacist state, whether that is by Child Protective Services (CPS) or police violence. It’s important to note that SisterSong’s vision of reproductive justice not only centers the experiences of BIPOC folks, but also deliberately uses gender-inclusive language, recognizing the importance of including trans people in the conversation.

Trans people have abortions, continue pregnancies, use birth control, parent, and choose to be child-free, just like cis people. One major difference is the barriers experienced by trans folks, from transphobic healthcare providers who provide subpar care or deny care outright, to transphobic social workers that view simply being trans as proof of inability to parent. Another barrier is exclusive language–still transphobia, but in a more subtle form.

First, let’s back up and explain how exclusive language is transphobic. Most people, when hearing the word “transphobia,” immediately think only of violent, overt acts of transphobia, such as slurs or murdering someone for being trans. However, transphobia also includes more covert acts that frame being trans as wrong or non-existent. A sub-sect of transphobia is cisnormativity, or the framing of cisgender identity as being normal and natural. This, of course, places being trans as being abnormal and unnatural. When broken down in this way, it becomes much more obvious how cisnormativity is an extension of transphobia.

When discussions and language around abortion access only include cis women, trans people are excluded, which is an example of transphobia, even if it is unintentional. Most feminists would agree that a key tenet of feminism is that people should not be reduced to the body parts they do or don’t have and their reproductive capacity. This extends beyond cis women being discriminated against in the workplace because they may become pregnant in the future, what we typically think of as gender discrimination, and includes recognizing that simply having a uterus does not make one a woman. Men and nonbinary folks need abortion access, as well as access to all other reproductive and sexual healthcare, and inclusive language is one piece of assuring that access. In the same way we use non-judgmental language around abortion to reduce stigma and shame for people who need abortions, we must do the same to include trans folks who already face obstacles in seeking care.

At this point, many abortion activists who only have familiarity with fighting for abortion access for cis women may feel overwhelmed at what exactly they are meant to do. Some even worry that taking steps to include trans people will somehow exclude cis women. Just like in countless other examples, taking steps to support the most marginalized among us benefits the whole, though those with some amount of privilege may feel threatened. The good news is that shifting our language around abortion access and all reproductive care is easier than many expect. Below, see a few examples of gendered language and how to change them.

  • Lady parts–name the part you’re referring to: uterus, clitoris, vulva, vagina, etc. Along with being vague and unhelpful, many cis women find this term infantilizing.
    • Some trans folks may not use the “medical” terms for their body parts, and may instead use alternate, gender-affirming language.
  • “Abortion is a woman’s choice”– “abortion is a human right”
  • “We support a pregnant woman in however she chooses to manage her pregnancy”– “We support a pregnant person in however they choose to manage their pregnancy”

Along with changing messaging and discussions around abortion and other reproductive health access, shifting our language for interpersonal communication and informal conversation is vital as well. A clinic that posts on social media using inclusive language but has staff that refer to transgender abortion patients as “ma’am” is not doing justice to the trans community. These language changes are easy at their root, but can be difficult for some if they do not understand or consider inclusion of the trans community important. The best way to make these changes in how we use language are to practice and to view these changes as important. As a trans person, it takes me just as much effort and practice to adopt the use of gender-inclusive language as it would for any cis person, as we have all been socialized in a cisnormative culture. 

Some may complain that trans folks make things too complicated, or that language around the trans community changes too often, but those same individuals would be hard-pressed to find any field or facet of life that is static or simple. New literature is published, scientific discoveries made, and medical treatments developed every day; change is constant. Over time, all abortion activists have shifted language related to abortion, making our movement even stronger. Making a shift towards gender-inclusive language in abortion care is vital to assuring access to all essential healthcare for trans folks.

There will always be mistakes made, as there is no person or organization that is perfect. That is why, in all fights against oppression, effort and accountability are key to not only supporting marginalized communities, but also our own growth. This is why we at Mabel Wadsworth Center work to make the changes needed to truly support the trans community, while also recognizing that we are likely to make mistakes, and so always remain open to further growth and change. Any feedback we receive about how to better serve the communities we hold dear is a gift.

Feedback? Questions? Email our Director of Education and Community Engagement Abbie Strout-Bentes at abbie@mabelwadsworth.org

Aspen Ruhlin (they/them/theirs) is the Client Advocate at Mabel Wadsworth Center, where they help clients overcome barriers to accessing healthcare. They are passionate about LGBTQ+ issues, intersectional feminism, and fighting the power. In their off time, you can find them embroidering or gardening.