Who has abortions? For most of human history, the answer was obvious: women have abortions. Girls have abortions. Not any more. People have abortions. Patients have abortions. Men have abortions. “We must acknowledge and come to terms with the implicit cissexism in assuming that only women have abortions,” wrote feminist activist Lauren Rankin in July 2013 in truthout.com. She went on to criticize as exclusionary slogans like “the War on Women” and “Stand with Texas Women.”
Such claims may sound arcane to most people. One area in which they have been quietly effective, though, is in reproductive-rights activism. Abortion funds, which offer help paying for an abortion when Medicaid or insurance won’t, have become a thriving hub of grassroots feminism. They draw hundreds of activists, young and old, to donate countless hours to provide direct service and advocate for better funding for abortion. In the past few years, a number of the funds have quietly removed references to “women” from their messaging in order to be more welcoming to trans men and others who do not identify as women but can still become pregnant. The New York Abortion Access Fund changed its language in 2012. Its mission statement now mentions “anyone,” “every person” and “the people who call our hotline.” The Eastern Massachusetts Abortion Fund helps “callers,” the Lilith Fund helps “Texans.” Last year Fund Texas Women, which pays travel and hotel costs in the wake of the closing of many clinics in the state, became Fund Texas Choice. (“Choice” is a problematic word too, but that’s a subject for another day.) In a message to supporters, co-founder Lenzi Scheible wrote, “with a name like Fund Texas Women, we were publicly excluding trans* people who needed to get an abortion but were not women. We refuse to deny the existence and humanity of trans* people any longer.”
I’m going to argue here that removing “women” from the language of abortion is a mistake. We can, and should, support trans men and other gender-non-conforming people. But we can do that without rendering invisible half of humanity and 99.999 percent of those who get pregnant. I know I’ll offend, hurt and disappoint some people, including abortion-fund activists I love dearly. That is why I’ve started this column many times over many months and put it aside. I tell myself I might be wrong—it’s happened before. “Most of the pressure [to shift language] comes from young people,” said one abortion-fund head I interviewed, whose fund, like many, has “Women” in its name. “The role of people in our generation is to give money and get out of the way.” (Like many of the people I interviewed for this column, she asked to remain anonymous.) Maybe in ten years, it will seem perfectly natural to me to talk about abortion in a gender-neutral way. Right now, though, it feels as if abortion language is becoming a bit like French, where one man in a group of no matter how many women means “elles” becomes “ils.”
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From the perspective of providing care, I understand it. “The focus should be on access,” NYAAF board member Rye Young told me over the phone. The primary purpose of abortion funds is to provide immediate financial and other help to individuals in crisis, whom funders usually know only as voices on the phone. If wording on a website makes people feel they can’t make that phone call, that’s not good. We women have had enough experience with being disrespected by healthcare and social-service providers not to wish that on anyone else. Does presenting abortion as gender-neutral need to be part of that welcoming procedure, though? The primary sources of abortion data in the US—the CDC and the Guttmacher Institute—don’t collect information on the gender identity of those who seek abortion, but conversations with abortion providers and others suggest the number of transgender men who want to end a pregnancy is very low. I don’t see how it denies “the existence and humanity of trans people” to use language that describes the vast majority of those who seek to end a pregnancy. Why can’t references to people who don’t identify as women simply be added to references to women? After all, every year over 2,000 men get breast cancer and over 400 die, and no one is calling for “women” to be cut out of breast-cancer language so that men will feel more comfortable seeking treatment. If there was such a call, though, I wonder what would happen. Women have such a long history of minimizing themselves in order not to hurt feelings or seem self-promoting or attention-demanding. We are raised to put ourselves second, and too often, still, we do.
The real damage of abolishing “women” in abortion contexts, though, is to our political analysis. What happens to Dr. Tiller’s motto, “Trust Women”? There was a whole feminist philosophy expressed in those two words: women are competent moral actors and they, not men, clergy or the state, are the experts on their own lives, and should be the ones to decide how to shape them. It is because abortion gives power specifically to women that it was criminalized. How did Selina Meyer put it on Veep? If men got pregnant, you could get an abortion at an ATM. Restricting abortion is all about keeping women under the male thumb: controlling women’s sexual and reproductive capacities is what patriarchy is all about. Indeed, that women should decide for themselves is controversial even now. Although the Supreme Court ruled decades ago that men were not entitled to be notified if their wife was planning to end a pregnancy, some polls show large majorities of Americans believe husbands have a right to know. Once you start talking about “people,” not “women,” you lose what abortion means historically, symbolically and socially. It becomes hard to understand why it isn’t simply about the right to life of the “unborn.” After all, men get pregnant too!
There are broader questions of political language here. One organization tweeted that one in three “people” has had an abortion—actually, if we’re talking about people, it’s more like one in six. When the actress and feminist advocate Martha Plimpton organized an abortion-fund benefit lightheartedly named “Night of a Thousand Vaginas,” some activists were outraged, because some trans men don’t like that word (“birth canal” or “front hole” are favored alternatives to the V-word). Trans men should refer to their genitalia however they like, but it’s hard not to feel that there’s something seriously awry when women, who only got to call their genitals by the proper term in public a decade or so ago, are supposed to stop naming them in order to avoid offense.
Most people who support dropping “women”-specific language are feminists (although maybe they won’t call themselves that for long, given that “feminism” itself comes from the Latin for “woman”). They point to their use of words like “misogyny” and “patriarchy” as evidence that they understand female oppression by men is central to their analysis. But a feminism that can’t say “women”—or “vagina” or “sisterhood” or even the cutesy “ladyparts”— is cutting the ground from under itself. It’s not just about slogans like “the War on Women“ or “Stand with Texas Women, “ important as they are and challenging as it would be to replace them with gender-neutral language that carried the same emotional charge. How do you even talk about women’s being underrepresented politically, or earning less than men, or being victims of rape and domestic violence? In an era where politics is all about identity, as a tool for organizing and claiming public space, are women about to lose theirs? Because after all we’re all just people now.