Does Talking About ‘Women’ Exclude Transgender People From the Fight for Abortion Rights?

Does Talking About ‘Women’ Exclude Transgender People From the Fight for Abortion Rights?

Does Talking About ‘Women’ Exclude Transgender People From the Fight for Abortion Rights?

Abortion fund activists respond to Katha Pollitt’s opposition to gender-neutral language.


Gender Trouble

While Katha Pollitt is a fierce advocate for abortion rights, she missed the mark in her column “Who Has Abortions?” [posted online, March 13]. The article, which discusses abortion funds’ shift away from talking about “women” in favor of referring to “people who have abortions,” is a fearmongering and unsubstantiated piece about how this change erases women from the abortion-rights movement.

I serve on the board of the New York Abortion Access Fund (NYAAF), one of the funds featured in Pollitt’s article. I am also the executive director of Third Wave Fund, a feminist, activist foundation. I believe language that doesn’t equate abortion with women increases accessibility of services for trans and gender-nonconforming (TGNC) people, who, because of discrimination at clinics and because these clients are disproportionately low-income, homeless, and uninsured, face significant barriers to care.

In this article, Pollitt minimizes, demonizes, and pokes fun at trans people—while claiming the moral high ground. She invented the statistic that TGNC people have only .001 percent of abortions, and uses testimony from clinic staff to further emphasize how few TGNC people need access to abortion services. But based on this shaky reporting, Pollitt argues that because TGNC people are an insignificant footnote in the history of abortion, this linguistic shift has no purpose other than to erase women.

Pollitt’s article follows an insidious pattern in the history of mainstream feminism. She sets up an ultimatum: that to address privilege in the movement threatens women and therefore strengthens patriarchy. This approach silences and marginalizes feminists with the least power. Pollitt co-opts the narrative of “being erased” from those who actually are erased from the movement—women of color, trans people, poor women, etc.—while using her relative power in the movement to be a gatekeeper of abortion discourse. She depicts TGNC people as nuisances who complicate the abortion-rights message. Eventually, she ceases to make moral arguments and rests on the threat of losing the rallying power of abortion slogans. Slogans are not a reason to abandon a community that is literally dying from a lack of visibility, healthcare access, and solidarity.

It has always been true that inclusion makes our movement stronger, not weaker. What we might lose in slogans, we make up for with integrity.

Rye Young
Executive director, Third Wave Fund
brooklyn, n.y.

The Eastern Massachusetts Abortion Fund, like many abortion funds, is proud of our work to ensure abortion access for all people of any gender identity and expression. We were disappointed that our values were so blithely dismissed in Pollitt’s column “Who Has Abortions?”

Using gender-neutral language such as people doesn’t make women invisible, but using women to describe people who need access to abortion does make trans and genderqueer people invisible. Reproductive-justice activists, particularly young people, aren’t relinquishing years of progress by being inclusive of all people who can become pregnant; we’re improving the movement and remembering the people whom those earlier movements forgot.

The feminist movement has a long history of prioritizing the experiences and needs of straight, white, upper-class, cisgender women. We must work toward a feminism that uplifts all oppressed people—a shift that begins with inclusive language. If you stand for feminism and reproductive justice, you must demand equal access for all people, not just women.

Alicia Johnson
External relations, EMA Fund
cambridge, mass.

Katha Pollitt Responds

I admire tremendously the work of both the NYAAF and the EMA Fund, which do so much to make abortion access a reality and are at the heart of the struggle for reproductive rights and justice. Still, I stand by what I wrote. I never said trans men and other gender-non-conforming people should not be mentioned. I simply think we can include them without barring the word “women.” We can use “women and other pregnant people,” “women and gender-nonconforming people,” or similar terms. That would make crystal clear to those who don’t identify as women that they are welcome, a point that vague words like “people,” “callers,” and “anyone” convey only indirectly.

As Julie Burkhart, founder and CEO of the South Wind Women’s Center in Wichita, Kansas, pointed out to me recently, women know that “women’s clinic,” “women’s health,” and so on are code for “abortion.” That’s how they find services. That’s why many abortion funds have “women” not just in their messaging but in their name: The Women’s Medical Fund, ACCESS Women’s Health Justice, and numerous other similarly named funds are raising donations in the annual National Network of Abortion Funds Bowl-a-Thon right now.

My larger point, though, was less about service provision than about politics. “Women” is a powerful word that makes an instant emotional connection. The difference between “women” and “people” is the difference between “feminism” and “humanism,” to which well-meaning people who aren’t feminists often say they ascribe. In the abortion context, “women” reminds us that the denial of reproductive rights to women is political: It’s about the control of women’s sexuality by church, state, and (yes) men, individually and collectively, in order to confine them to lesser, subordinate roles. The use of the word “women” is a call for solidarity and mutual compassion among women—something we could use a lot more of.

It also humanizes the abortion patient to the public. A recent Vox survey found that 28 percent of respondents agreed that “abortion should be legal in almost all cases.” But 37 percent agreed that “women should have a legal right to safe and accessible abortion in almost all cases.” That’s a 9 percent jump gained simply by including the word “women.” Most people understand that “Black Lives Matter” does not exclude Latinos or other victims of police brutality who are targeted because of race. Why is “Trust Women” or “Stand With Texas Women” or “women’s rights” exclusionary?

It has taken humanity thousands of years to acknowledge womanhood as something to identify with proudly, to see women as bearers of rights. I wouldn’t be so quick to throw that away. As for the accusations that I am siding with white, upper-class ciswomen, I don’t think so. Abortion funding is my main political activity. People who use abortion funds are disproportionately women of color—ciswomen—and all of them are poor.

Katha Pollitt
new york

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