Gender identity shouldn’t trump women’s rights

Removing words like ”woman” and ”mother” from the language surrounding maternity services excludes women.

We need an open discussion about women’s health, rights, sex and gender identity without accusations of transphobia, Kristina Turner writes. Photo: ELIN BERGE


Maternity services are in crisis. Whether we take gender identity or biological sex as the starting point for how maternity services are structured is of critical importance and is a question that needs to be discussed.

All human beings have the right to express themselves as they wish, look however they want and call themselves what they want. But it can’t be at the expense of women.

Just like other mammals, human sexual reproduction is based on two sexes: the female sex carries, births and suckles the baby, and the chromosomes you receive at conception affect your reproductive, physiological and social life.

Women’s healthcare provision is a systematically under-prioritised area because it is founded on patriarchal structures, and pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding are fundamentally sexed issues that affect women’s lives and health.

Modern maternity services are based on structures where men have been presented as the norm. Obstetric violence (violence during childbirth) is a form of sex-based violence that has arisen out of these structures.

Common examples of obstetric violence include a lack of informed consent in connection with vaginal examinations, coercion to birth on your back, or being left alone against your will.

The fact that insufficient resources are allocated to maternity services is an expression of discrimination against women precisely because they are women.

When modern society categorises people on the basis of gender identity rather than biological sex, we lose the tools to speak about sex-based oppression. Nor can we speak about pregnancy as something positive specifically for women.

In Sweden, Vårdguiden (public healthcare information service) in consultation with RFSL (equivalent of Stonewall) has chosen to remove the word ’woman’ from some contexts in order for more people to feel included.

But avoiding words such as ”woman” and ”mother” obscures the power imbalance. When you no longer speak about biological sex, the physiological, psychological and rights-based differences that affect women are rendered invisible.

Replacing the word ’woman’ with ’bleeder’ or ’uterus-haver’ can be experienced as dehumanizing.

Maternity services are now frequently called Pregnancy services in order to avoid excluding those who don’t identify as mothers. It is no longer women who are centred, it’s reproduction.

The newborn’s need for the mother-child unit, including the health-positive aspects of breastfeeding, are affected when we write ”the baby and parent should not be separated after birth”. This has an entirely different meaning than when we write ”the baby and mother should not be separated after birth”.

The language excludes women from their own woman-centred contexts.

The confusion of gender identity with biological sex also generates healthcare risks. If a woman who identifies as a man comes to healthcare services with abdominal pain it can be life threatening not to ask them if they could be pregnant.

Transwomen don’t need pregnancy tests of smears. Biological sex is medically significant and has nothing to do with gender identity.

Whether we take gender identity or biological sex as the starting point for how maternity services are structured.

Many women value the words ”woman” and ”mother”, especially in connection with pregnancy and motherhood. A feminism worthy of the name must be able to support motherhood.

The proposed new gender recognition act would confirm the confusion between biological sex and gender identity.

We need to have an open discussion about women’s health, rights, sex and gender identity without accusations of transphobia.

When conflicts arise with the rights of other groups you need to negotiate a joint solution—not redefine reality. That is neither democratic, equal or inclusive.

Kristina Turner, writer and birth activist

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