Sex-based language: vital for women’s rights

In January 2022, Sweden’s biggest-circulation tabloid, Aftonbladet, published a challenge to the language of gender ideology. By writer and birth activist Kristina Turner, it explains why she and other Swedish feminists are fighting to retain sex-based language in maternity and health care. With the kind permission of the writer and the newspaper, here is an edited English translation.

Gender identity must not trump women’s rights, says Kristina Turner. Removing words like ‘woman’ and ‘mother’ from the language of the maternity services excludes women.

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

Maternity services are in crisis. The decision to take gender identity or biological sex as the starting point for how maternity services are structured is critically important.

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

Just as with other mammals, human 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 relationship life.

Women’s healthcare provision is a systematically under-prioritised area. Why? 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’s needs and expectations have been taken as the norm. Obstetric violence (violence during childbirth) is a form of sex-based violence that has arisen out of these structures.

Examples of obstetric violence include a lack of informed consent to 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 society categorises people on the basis of their gender identity rather than their biological sex, we lose the most basic tools – our language – to speak about sex-based oppression. It means we can’t talk about pregnancy as something positive specifically for women.

In Sweden, Vårdguiden (our public healthcare information service) in consultation with RFSL (Sweden’s equivalent of Stonewall) have chosen to remove the word ’woman’ from some contexts. Reason? To allow more people ‘to feel included’.

But avoiding words such as ‘woman’ and ‘mother’ – sexed words, for females – hides 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 dehumanising.

They replace the name of our sex with the word for a bodily function, or a body part. Maternity services are now frequently called ‘pregnancy services’ in order to avoid excluding those who don’t identify as mothers.

But without the word ‘maternity’, it’s no longer women who are centred, it’s reproduction. The newborn’s need to be part of a mother-child unit, supporting the 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 from ‘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 – men who identify as women – don’t need pregnancy tests or smears. Biological sex is medically significant and has nothing to do with gender identity.

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 and celebrate motherhood, and our rights and needs as mothers.

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

One Response

  • Thank you for your post Kristina, it was very interesting to read. I have spent the last 5 yrs living rather reclusively and going through the menopause experience. I must say I am no fan of the current ideology stalking the globe. I think it serves no-one and instead causes huge societal division.
    When I was much younger I called myself a feminist and at the instruction of the “societal engineers” foolishly believed the mantras about the malignancies of our male counterparts. The Universe has treated me to the life lesson about what males are really all about. I had the joy of giving birth to 4 very different little boys and 1 determined girl. They have all taught me so much.
    Now on the other side of my reproductive life I have a completely different view of the “Masculine & Feminine” energies. I think that many of the modern misunderstandings between women and men, may have have their genesis in the Victorian passion for the classification and commodification of everything. I see it in the sense of an obsession for the “scientific method”.
    Unfortunately as is with many endeavors of our species ,we tend to take things beyond where they should have gone. Not to mention when something creates a perceived “benefit” for one demographic over another, the one with the benefit it reticent to relinquish said “benefit”. This should be food for thought. We should ALL be looking for what unites us as opposed to the smaller things that don’t.
    Beyond that I would like to see an end to the current rubbish about “personal pronouns” and the fear around causing “offense”. Dam it, humans are lets face it, periodically offensive and that is okay. We need to have sufficient abrasion applied as we grow-up, in order to gain the quality of resilience in order to become the BEST us we can. As a parent I had to learn that preventing this process for my children was a really bad idea. The problem is you only see the fruits of your actions AFTER the horse has bolted as it were and then it’s too late. The DAMAGE is done and is hard to undo. Kids will try all sorts of things on for size as they grow but most things come out in the wash and they end up right where they should be. Teach them to always put their best foot forward, to care and be able to put themselves in others shoes and they will be fine. Don’t sweat the small things.

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