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Analysis

Not only women have abortions. Is pro-choice rhetoric catching up with that reality?

“It’s hard to see yourself inside of a movement that doesn’t use language that includes you."

A demonstrator holds up a  banner saying "Trans Women Too" and another holds a sign that says "RESIST" in front of Trump International Hotel and Tower during the second annual Women's March in the borough of Manhattan in New York City, U.S. on Saturday, January 20, 2018. CREDIT: Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images
A demonstrator holds up a banner saying "Trans Women Too" and another holds a sign that says "RESIST" in front of Trump International Hotel and Tower during the second annual Women's March in the borough of Manhattan in New York City, U.S. on Saturday, January 20, 2018. CREDIT: Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images

Not only women have abortions.

But look at the lexicon of the abortion conversation, even among pro-choice groups, and it would be easy to think this were not so. For decades, the standard rallying cry for abortion access has been about “a woman’s right to choose.”

Women are, of course, targeted and victimized when abortion is restricted or criminalized — but in this, women are not alone. Women are joined in this vulnerable place by trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming people who can also get pregnant, also need access to abortion care, and also are under attack by laws that seek to strip them of their basic human rights.

Trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming people have faced brutal and dehumanizing attacks from the Trump administration: the banning of transgender Americans from the military; rolling back civil rights protections put in place under former president Barack Obama that banned discrimination against transgender patients by no longer recognizing gender identity as a basis for sex discrimination; considering defining gender as “a biological, immutable condition determined by genitalia at birth,” which would essentially legislate trans people out of existence.

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Amid this onslaught of federally-mandated cruelty, trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming individuals are also fighting to be recognized and included by allies who — through everything from ignorance to laziness to outright malice — exclude them from the conversation about abortion access.

“It’s been incredibly cissexist since forever,” said Jack Qu’emi Gutierréz, a storyteller with We Testify, a program of the National Network of Abortion Funds that provides a forum for people who’ve had abortions to share their experiences with the public. Gutierréz had an abortion when they were 20 years old. “I had multiple issues with access to care as a non-binary person.”

Within the pro-choice movement, Gutierréz felt that a lot of the language just “didn’t really apply to me… The campaign would say, ‘This is a war on women. This is a war on women’s health. We care about this women’s clinic.’” Where did that leave Gutierréz, who had an abortion and isn’t a woman?

“I was told a lot of times by people who were pro-choice, like, ‘We’ll get to your people. We just have to get everything squared away for women first,’” Gutierréz said. “And I was like, that’s not how liberation works. We’re not all free until we’re all free. It’s a privilege to be able to say, you’re going to have to wait.”

“I think in major media outlets and articles, I do still see a lot of gendering,” said Sebastian Pelaez, a trans woman and trans health advocate at the Allentown Women’s Center, which sees about 2,500 abortion patients annually. “A lot of places using are using ‘women’ and ‘pregnant women’ instead of ‘pregnant people.’ It’s difficult. It’s hard to read these things sometimes. My husband is someone that could have gotten pregnant; my husband is a trans man.”

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“I think as these bans start coming in, we’re all angry, we’re all very passionate, and we want to do the work, and that’s all amazing,” Pelaez said. “But I think in those moments of anger, people tend to forget that it’s not only women that are being targeted. It’s many communities that are being affected by these bans.”

 

The battle for and against abortion access has always, on some level, been about language, and typically conservatives have been successful in defining the terms. It is anti-abortion advocates who made “pro-life” a term of art, who pushed “fetal heartbeat” into the vernacular (there is no such thing; embryos don’t have hearts), who perpetuate panic-inducing, misleading labels like “late-term abortion” and “infanticide.” Progressives frequently push back against those words, insisting that abortion be described with clinical precision, not emotion-baiting rhetoric.

This time, it’s progressives who are trying to change the terms of the abortion debate — not necessarily by focusing on those who are anti-choice, but instead on those who believe that abortion should be safe, legal, and accessible, but fail to use inclusive language when the subject comes up, instead reverting back to fighting for “women’s rights” only.

Is change coming? There are a few signs that progress is underway. Some mainstream news outlets, including Marie Claire, have adopted the language suggested by GLAAD — an advocacy group for gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual people — to clarify that, while stories about abortion may refer to “women,” “we understand that not everyone with internal reproductive organs identifies as a woman or a female.” Just last week, Sen. Kristin Gillibrand (D-NY), one of about two dozen Democrats vying for the presidency, specifically referred to “women and trans people” in a tweet about abortion access.

And Lady Parts Justice, a comedy-slash-activism group that supports reproductive rights and abortion access, announced last Thursday that it was changing its name to Abortion Access Front (Abortion AF for short). “We strive to be intersectional, but does our name reflect that work? Not so much. We decided to fix that… We advocate strongly for the reproductive health and rights not only of cis women but people of all genders. Let’s be clear: not all ladies have uteruses. And not everyone with a uterus identifies as a lady. Full stop. Everyone deserves access to dignified, safe, culturally competent, affordable health care.”

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For Planned Parenthood, the largest reproductive health care provider in the United States, one of the significant changes came around 2014 with a change to something every patient engages with as soon as they enter a clinic: The medical intake form.

“I think this perception that Planned Parenthood ‘treats women’ is a very pervasive narrative,” said Adrienne Verrilli, Planned Parenthood New York City’s vice president of communications and marketing. “So it was really incumbent upon us as a health care provider to make sure than anyone who walked through our doors immediately felt welcome.” 

Patients used to be routinely asked, “Do you have sex with men, women, or both?” “That used to be what we would say was the ‘progressive’ way to say it,” said Kate Steinle, director of transgender health services for PPNYC. “I don’t even know what an answer to that question would give me. That question is totally irrelevant and obviously not trans-friendly at all.” 

Now, the questions are more detailed — e.g. “Do your partners have vaginas, penises, or both?” — and providers undergo training so they know how to contextualize what might seem, at first, like a prurient or just invasive interview. “Totally, that can be uncomfortable,” Steinle said. “But every time we change questions, there’s always discomfort, and then it becomes normalized. Patients then understand why we’re asking those questions; if they don’t, we explain it. I’ve never come across a patient who is angry if I explain why I’m asking the question.”

As for seeing gender-inclusive language catch on more broadly in the reproductive rights movement, Verrilli said, “Change can be very, very slow. But if you think about marriage equality, if you go back 15 years, we were saying ‘gay marriage,’ and then it changed to ‘same-sex marriage,’ and then it changed to a better reflection of our communities and our family, to ‘marriage equality.’ I’d say the same thing around ‘global warming’ to ‘climate change.’… Language does matter, but it also takes time.”

 

Lizz Winstead — comedian, satirist, and creator of The Daily Show — founded what was then Lady Parts Justice in 2015. She envisioned an organization of like-minded writers and performers who would use comedy to advocate for abortion access and against the work of anti-choice groups working to deny patients that health care.

While gearing up for a tour to benefit Planned Parenthood, Winstead met Michigan Rep. Lisa Brown who, just a few years prior, had been banned from the floor of the Michigan state House for saying the word “vagina” while arguing against an abortion bill that would have placed new regulations on providers and banned all abortions after 20 weeks. (Her exact words: “I’m flattered that you’re all so interested in my vagina, but ‘no’ means ‘no.’”) As Winstead remembers it, Brown related that House Speaker Jase Bolger told her to use less offensive terminology: “Lady parts.”

“She told me that story and I was like, oh my God, that is the absolute embodiment of who these legislators are,” Winstead told ThinkProgress. “They are uncomfortable with the word ‘vagina’ but feel wholly entitled to legislate it.” From this telling anecdote, Lady Parts Justice was christened: An homage to a politician who fought for reproductive rights, a winking reference to an ironic state of affairs.

NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 20: A demonstrator holds up a  banner with a drawing of a female organs giving the finger in front of Trump International Hotel and Tower during the second annual Women's March in the borough of Manhattan in New York City, U.S. on Saturday, January 20, 2018.  One year after the inauguration of President Donald Trump, thousands of people will again gather to protest for equal rights at the 2018 Women's March.  (Photo by Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 20: A demonstrator holds up a banner with a drawing of a female organs giving the finger in front of Trump International Hotel and Tower during the second annual Women's March in the borough of Manhattan in New York City, U.S. on Saturday, January 20, 2018. One year after the inauguration of President Donald Trump, thousands of people will again gather to protest for equal rights at the 2018 Women's March. (Photo by Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images)

“Our thinking was: When people hear this story, they’ll understand it,” Winstead said. “But nobody hears the story. Nobody’s got time for that story. So they see it and say, ‘I’m a dude,’ or ‘I’m queer,’ or ‘I’m a trans woman with reproductive health needs,’ and it’s like, what ‘part’ are you talking about?”

And another thing about that story: It isn’t part of the public record. Bolger made his “lady parts” remark to Brown in private, who in turn related the conversation to Winstead. So the quote the Lady Parts Justice name was referencing had zero chance of landing with its intended audience.

Winstead’s stance was this: Was Lady Parts Justice doing inclusive work, featuring trans and queer comics in all their shows? Yes, “but none of that matters. My intention doesn’t matter. What matters is that we open up the conversation to people of all genders who are suffering reproductive oppression.”

Gutierréz thinks that there’s still a ton of work to be done on abortion access inclusivity. But they cited the fact that Lady Parts Justice is now Abortion AF as being a “really awesome” move. Before, “their name [was] totally off-putting. I’d never go up to an organization with a name like that and feel like I would be safe and taken care of. And when I saw their new name, I thought — that’s so much better! That actually made a difference for me.”

Which inevitably brings us to Planned Parenthood, whose name does not exactly align with the full breadth of its services. Would Planned Parenthood ever change its name?

“We have gotten that question for many years,” said Verrilli. “I think we’ve struggled [with this because], Planned Parenthood is one of the strongest brands in this nation. We are up there with the Red Cross and, sadly, the dregs of the NRA. So we have really high favorability. People know who we are and what we do. As we think about ‘planning your family,’ it seems to make sense. But… as we think about the expansiveness of our care, is Planned Parenthood really reflective of that? I’d say, stay tuned on that. I don’t see it happening anytime soon. We’re 103 years old and counting. But it’s something that definitely comes up.”

 

Cazembe Jackson, a We Testify storyteller, had an abortion 18 years ago. “But I didn’t see myself having a place in the reproductive justice movement, really, until I met Renee [Bracey Sherman, from the National Network of Abortion Funds] a couple of years ago,” he told ThinkProgress.

While Jackson is happy to see some gender-neutral substitutions (e.g. “pregnant people” instead of “pregnant woman”), he doesn’t think that is “actually enough. I think it’s a good start. But we’ve got to get to a point where we say what we mean.”

Yes, general inclusion is good — but specificity with intention is better. “If you’re talking about women, say women, that’s fine. That includes trans women. But if you’re talking about people who would need abortions, you can say “people,” because that covers everyone. You can also say women, trans and non-binary folk, because that pretty much encompasses everybody that can and do get abortions.”

“It’s hard to see yourself inside of a movement that doesn’t use language that includes you. And it’s not just a preference thing. I don’t want to take away or take up space in a conversation that’s not meant for me… If you’re talking about women and want to have a conversation about women, that’s fine! But if you’re talking about abortion access, that’s not a conversation that’s only necessary for women to have.”