Across the country, states continue chipping away at abortion rights while proponents of religious imposition laws prepare plans to take a potential Roe-buster to the Supreme Court. At such a time, talking about semantics may seem ill-advised or even reckless. But this is, in fact, the perfect time to remind everyone that women are not the only people who get abortions. And continuing to erase the full spectrum of people who need abortion care only serves to threaten abortion access for everyone.
There are two critical truths in this discussion.
The first is that the crusade against abortion in the United States—the concerted effort to make the care functionally impossible to access, and to punish people who seek it—is absolutely designed to target cis women. It is part of the larger war on women: the concerted, multi-millennia attempt to control people society reads as women by denying them full social and legal rights to participate in society. Reproductive health in particular is often at the crux of this social control.
Similar attempts at social control affect others who are not straight, cis, nondisabled white men from middle class or affluent backgrounds—including trans and gender-nonconforming people, disabled people, and people of color. But there is a peculiar form of weaponization applied specifically to cis women that must be called out. In the case of women of color, especially Black, Latina, and Indigenous women, it is particularly amplified; slavery, for example, has left a marked legacy on Black bodies, and that history has been used in racist anti-choice rhetoric in an attempt to influence Black women.
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Most people who will need abortions are cis women, and the long history of opposition to abortion has been deeply intertwined with sexism and misogyny. It is critical to recognize that cis women are the target here; when people talk about “sluts” who should have kept their legs closed, they’re tapping into a social consciousness that says cis women’s desire to control their own bodies is transgressive and wrong.
But the second critical truth is that women are not the only people who need abortions: People across the gender spectrum receive abortion care. While their numbers are relatively small—so small that it is difficult to get statistics, for example, on how many men receive abortions each year—they are not insignificant. That they are unintended victims of the war on women does not negate the fact that they, too, are fighting for their lives and autonomy.
While many of the religious impositionists attacking abortion access would likely refuse to acknowledge that women are not the only recipients of abortion care, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that many of these self-same individuals are also threatening transgender health care. The Alliance Defending Freedom, for example, opposes both abortion and trans rights, while the president and the vice president of the United States have trashed trans rights and abortion rights publicly. The “Pro-Life Women’s Conference” featured attacks on trans children. From “right to discriminate” laws that would make it legal to deny any kind of care to a trans or gender-nonconforming person, to campaigns to deny incarcerated trans women access to gender-affirming care, it’s clear that transphobia is an ingrained part of the conservative ethos.
The same people fighting abortion rights are often the ones lobbying against anti-discrimination protections for trans people, so abortion rights advocates undermining trans autonomy by failing to be inclusive is no doubt a pleasant bonus for them.
Many reproductive rights organizations are making real strides when it comes to shifting the use of gendered language in abortion conversations. The National Network of Abortion Funds centers “people who have abortions.” Similarly, the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, for example, uses inclusive language about “people” in its website’s informational material about abortion. At the same time, it also mentions issues and statistics specifically relevant to cis women without explicitly flagging them as such, including noting that “1 in 4 women women in the U.S. will have an abortion by the time they’re 45 years old”; its social media presence tends to center “women.” Abortion providers are also starting to become conscious about how they use language. And many in the reproductive justice movement have long described abortion in inclusive terms, recognizing that while cis women are the target of abortion-related cruelty, they aren’t the only ones harmed by it.
This has a real impact. Thirty-three percent of trans people reported mistreatment in clinical settings in a 2015 survey conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality. That kind of treatment is especially fraught when it comes to seeking reproductive health care that can trigger intense gender dysphoria. Compassionate, professional care in a clinical setting can help to reduce some of that emotional stress; going to a “women’s clinic” and being surrounded by rhetoric about “women’s health” can do just the opposite.
Similarly, some trans people who need access to abortion funds and other support
s may be put off by “women’s” branding, feeling either that it is not for them or that the subsequent dysphoria created by the implied misgendering is not worth it. Consequently, the experience of abortion can become something deeply isolating and alienating.
Language, in other words, matters.
In 2015, noted feminist critic Katha Pollitt wrote a Nation article entitled “Who Has Abortions?” in which she expressed outrage at abortion funds using gender-inclusive language in their outreach materials. “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,” she wrote.
She wasn’t the first to believe that being asked to make space for everyone in a community affected by abortion restrictions somehow takes something away from cis women. For privileged people, the news that members of marginalized groups want to claim space rather than waiting for a turn that never comes can be jarring; it feeds a “crabs in the pot” mentality rather than an additive one.
When people follow this line of logic, they don’t just condemn trans and gender-nonconforming people to oblivion. They also unwittingly undermine abortion access for all who might need it, because anything that delegitimizes abortion access for some inevitably creates ground for denying abortion access for all. Even the smallest sliver of an opening becomes something for the right to take advantage of, making it critical to hold a united front in defense of abortion across the board.
We’ve seen a stellar example of why this is so critical in recent months as UK anti-trans activists—also known as trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs)—have exported their toxic rhetoric to the United States, even teaming up with anti-choice entities in their quest to suppress trans rights. Their work to erase trans bodies, even at the cost of abortion rights, with rhetoric about “rapid-onset gender dysphoria” (not a real thing) is being boosted by cis intellectuals in the United States, further exacerbating the false divide between reproductive rights and trans rights.
For some, the experience of exclusion can be so souring that it makes them reluctant to work in solidarity with people defending abortion access in the name of “women.” This deprives the movement of incredibly skilled and valuable advocates who feel they, their loved ones, and the people they act in solidarity with aren’t welcome at the table.
It is possible to keep both the truths here in mind, embracing inclusionary language in ways that don’t feel jarring or forced.
Take, for example, this emphatic call to action that centers abortion as a legal right. Or this one, which seamlessly notes some facts about six-week bans. Or this one, which reminds us that abortion is a fundamentally private matter. If it feels uncomfortable to see references to “pregnant people” or “patients,” imagine what it would feel like to see yourself erased from an issue that revolves around your very own body and your right to autonomy. That’s the true “erasure” in this discussion.
It’s dismaying to see people continue treating abortion as a “women’s issue” after years of a steady shift towards regarding it as a larger reproductive justice issue. But having each others’ backs is more important than ever, and supporting trans abortion rights is an intrinsic good—even without the larger imperative to categorically secure abortion for all, on demand, and without apology.