Why accurate language matters

Associate Professor Karleen Gribble from the School of Nursing and Midwifery, Western Sydney University, Parramatta, has joined forces with nine other women to publish a discussion paper about the importance of sexed language.

The women represent fields such as nursing, midwifery and academia from countries such as Australia, the UK, USA, India, Vietnam and Sweden.

The paper is called “Effective Communication About Pregnancy, Birth, Lactation, Breastfeeding and Newborn Care: The Importance of Sexed Language.”

On 24 September 2021, The Lancet medical journal highlighted an article on its cover with a single sentence in large text; “Historically, the anatomy and physiology of bodies with vaginas have been neglected.” This statement, in which the word “women” was replaced with the phrase “bodies with vaginas,” is part of a trend to remove sexed terms such as “women” and “mothers” from discussions of female reproduction.

The women go on to write a comprehensive discussion paper about how the de-sexing of language harms women at policy, societal and health care levels.

They explain that biology matters and accurate language to describe biology matters.

Sex is salient to reproduction, as there are only two gametes and pubertal pathways to adulthood and gamete production, and only one gamete producing body type that becomes pregnant.

The paper discusses the risks to desexing language when describing female reproduction because “pregnant and birthing women and new mothers and their infants have unique vulnerabilities and also require protection.”

Each day, an estimated 810 women die during pregnancy, birth, and afterwards, with the majority of deaths in low- and middle-income countries. More women across low-, middle- and high-income countries suffer life threatening pregnancy and birth complications with short- and long-term consequences. Maltreatment and obstetric violence occurs everywhere and significantly contributes to birth trauma. Puerperal psychosis affects 1–2 in every 1,000 mothers often in the first few days after birth and is a leading cause of maternal death through suicide, as well as infanticide. Maternal deaths from non-medical causes such as suicide and injury, are gaining increased attention from leading health bodies such as the World Health Organization, with calls to extend reporting to a year after birth. Globally, 3.9 million infants die each year. Over 800 000 of these deaths are attributable to premature cessation of exclusive or any breastfeeding. Even in the wealthiest contexts, early discontinuation of breastfeeding is responsible for a large proportion of infant hospitalisations. Thus, Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says that the states of “motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance” and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states that the best interests of the child are paramount.

Trans and queer activism are threatening the accurate and specific care of women and mothers because of their persistent push to use ‘inclusive’ terms that can result in excluding actual women and mothers. Such language is dehumanising, imprecise, inaccurate and misleading.

Avoidance of sexed terms most commonly results in the words “woman” and “women” being replaced with “person”, “people” or “families” and the words “mother” and “mothers” being replaced with “parent”, “parents”, “family” or “families”. Sometimes body parts (e.g. “vagina owners”) or processes (e.g. “birthers”) are also used. Terms such as “non-males” or “non-men” may be used to denote women. “Maternity”, “maternal”, “midwife”, and “breastfeeding” have also become contentious terms. 

Notably, desexing language in relation to males occurs less frequently.

The authors also note that there is a word for mother in every language.

It is commonly the first word said by children and is perhaps the oldest word ever spoken. “Mother” holds meaning beyond that of “female parent” containing connotations of “nurturing”, “nourishing,” “love”, “responsibility”, and “child rearing” that support the importance of mothers to children.

A mother is more than a milk supplier and should not be reduced to mere function. Women are also more than ‘not men’.

Kirralie Smith, spokeswoman for Binary, said the paper was timely and valuable.

“Women and girls already face so many disadvantages as a direct result of their biology. Reducing them to ‘not men’ is insulting and harmful,” she said.

“Conflating sex and gender increases the danger of dehumanising women. It is confusing and risks skewering the data that is necessary to ensure the protection and development of women and mothers around the world.”