The Atlantic: deep-sixing the word “woman” in the abortion debate for ideological reasons does not help the cause

May 17, 2022 • 11:45 am

When liberal venues such as The Atlantic start picking holes in the progressive Left’s irrational or woke tendencies, then you may find some hope that the whole insanity gripping the Left (and heartening the Right) might be coming to an end. I hold out no such hopes, but nevertheless cheer on people like staff editor Helen Lewis, who in this Atlantic article raises the possibility that getting rid of the word “woman”, as many Progressives want to do—the rationale is that the word must now include transgender women, and this, causing confusion, mandates flushing “woman” down the drain—may have deleterious consequences for the Left and, in particular for the abortion debate.

If there’s any issue that holds out hope that Democrats won’t be totally destroyed in this November’s elections, it’s the Supreme Court’s upcoming dismantling of Roe v. Wade. The current construal of that soon-to-be defunct decision is supported by 60% of Americans, and if the Dems can leverage and keep harping on a a sensible abortion position like Roe (even if it can’t be passed in Congress), their platform would have more appeal.

Unless, that is, the whole issue gets sabotaged by those who want to get rid of the word “woman” on ideological grounds. And so it is going, pushed along by the newly woke ACLU who have decided that in every relevant respect, including sports, abortion, and jailing, “transwomen are women”. Well, yes, for nearly all purposes, and I’m happy to use whatever pronoun makes someone comfortable. But I won’t pretend that biological men or women who change gender are exactly the same as cis men or women in some circumstances. And expunging “women” from the abortion debate is not going to make a lot of biological women (or people in general, including lesbians and gays) very happy.

Click to read.

A few of Lewis’s excerpt with the relevant tweets. Here’s one that got her going:

You can see the problem, of course. Abortion bans disproportionately harm biological women above all, if you take the normal meaning of “disproportional.” Lewis notes that 99.9% of those who need abortions are cis women. She dissects the tweet:

, , , on May 11, the ACLU once again caught the moment, posting a tweet that perfectly encapsulates a new taboo on the American left: a terrible aversion to using the word women.

According to the ACLU,

Abortion bans disproportionately harm:

■ Black, Indigenous & other people of color

■ the LGBTQ community

■ immigrants

■ young people

■ those working to make ends meet

■ people with disabilities

Wait. Run that second point past me again? Surely one of the many things to recommend lesbian sex is that it doesn’t risk getting you pregnant. Unsurprisingly, multiple commentators struggled to see how abortion bans “disproportionately harm the LGBTQ community”—even if those laws do indeed harm parts of it, such as queer women and trans men who have procreative sex. The ACLU’s defenders have pointed to data from 2015 showing that high-school students who self-define as lesbian but have had sex with male partners are more likely to get pregnant than their female counterparts who identify as heterosexual. But comprehensive longitudinal studies have found that lesbians across the age spectrum are about half as likely to get pregnant as straight women. Another suggestion would be that abortion bans could also affect IVF provision, which many gay and lesbian couples rely on to have a baby. To a casual reader, though, the ACLU has used phrasing that reads like an incantation—a list of disadvantaged groups that are more interesting than women. There’s something of the record-store hipster about it all: I care about groups with intersecting oppressions you haven’t even heard of.

Lewis reminds us of how the ACLU arrantly changed the words of the late Justice Ginsburg in a pro-abortion ad last year, eliminating all references to “women.” Remember this?

Why is this effacing of “women” happening? Because supposedly jettisoning the word “women” makes one’s appeal more inclusive and thus rakes in more money for organizations like the ACLU (they’ll get no dosh from me).


One of the most irritating facets of this debate is that anyone like me who points out that it’s possible to provide abortion services to trans people without jettisoning everyday language such as women is accused of waging a culture war. No. We are noticing a culture war. A Great Unwomening is under way because American charities and political organizations survive by fundraising—and their most vocal donors don’t want to be charged with offenses against intersectionality. Cold economic logic therefore dictates that charities should phrase their appeals in the most fashionable, novel, and bulletproof-to-Twitter-backlash way possible. Mildly peeved centrists may grumble but will donate anyway; it’s the left flank that needs to be appeased.

Pointing out that women are the ones who largely need abortions is very second wave, boring, old-school, so done. Witness those placards held by older women that read: I can’t believe I’m still protesting this shit. Instead, the charities think: Can we find a way to make this fight feel a little more … now? And that’s how you end up with the National Women’s Law Center tweeting, “In case you didn’t hear it right the first time: People of all genders need abortions. People of all genders need abortions. People of all genders need abortions. People of all genders need abortions. People of all genders need abortions. People of all genders need abortions.” (No, that’s not my copy-and-paste keys getting stuck. The group really said it six times.)

Yep: see for yourself.

It’s not hard to see that this circumlocution and annoying repetition takes away the power that the Left really has on this issue: to most liberals, abortion instantiates a biological woman’s right to control her body and that right is being taken away. (And yes, it’s only biological women, who happen to include transgender men, who need abortions).

But does eliminating “woman” really help the abortion-rights campaign in America as opposed to catering to a few people who insist that men can get abortions? Lewis doesn’t think so:

In Britain, where I live, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, a major abortion provider, announced that it would continue to use women and other gendered language in much of its general literature, while developing tailored materials for clients who identify otherwise. Not only has the sky not fallen as a result, but Britons continue to have access to state-funded abortions, paid for out of general taxation. While American charities congratulate themselves on the purity of their language, the communities they serve—people of all genders who could have a free abortion in Britain—struggle to access terminations. No one should be polishing their halo here.

Language battles should not distract us from the true injustice raised by the potential repeal of Roe v. Wade: the removal of the right to privacy and bodily autonomy for 51 percent of Americans. But something is lost when abortion-rights activists shy away from saying women. We lose the ability to talk about women as more than a random collection of organs, bodies that happen to menstruate or bleed or give birth. We lose the ability to connect women’s common experiences, and the discrimination they face in the course of a reproductive lifetime. By substituting people for women, we lose the ability to speak of women as a class. We dismantle them into pieces, into functions, into commodities. This happens in many ways. This week I also saw an Axios editor rebuke a New York Times reporter for writing “surrogate mothers” rather than “gestational carriers”—as if the latter phrase were not dehumanizing, a whisper away from “vessels.”

To her credit, Lewis does consider at several points reasons people adduce for eschewing the word “woman”, but in the end rejects them. Her last sentence here is eloquent:

In my view, the best argument for gender-neutral language in the abortion debate is the ACLU’s unspoken one: History suggests that society doesn’t care much about women, so maybe abortion rights will have more appeal if supporters invoke some other causes instead. And yet I can’t stomach it. Supposedly progressive groups like the ACLU are free riding on the work of centuries of feminist activism, all of it based on the implicit or explicit premise that there are two sexes, one that did the voting and property-owning and being president, and one that did the unpaid scut work and giving birth. The ACLU can afford to wipe away the word women only because everyone knows which half of the population needs abortions. Women will continue to exist, and to be disproportionately harmed by abortion bans—even if their existence becomes unspeakable.

Now that is good writing!


22 thoughts on “The Atlantic: deep-sixing the word “woman” in the abortion debate for ideological reasons does not help the cause

  1. Seems like the ACLU and the Looney Left are forgetting that women actually have an option not to back abortion rights. Most women aren’t directly affected by abortion ban so they may safely ignore the issue when it comes time to vote or to protest. If the movement is seen as more about trans rights, or just not 100% about women’s rights, many women may give it a pass.

    1. Indeed. It is often cast as “old white men deciding what young women are allowed to do”, but the fraction for or against is probably the same among men and women. Certainly very religious justices would want to overturn Roe even if they are women. In other words, casting it is an issue where men tell women what to do might also backfire.

      1. I agree that the “men vs. women” framing is nonsense. If you look at photos of anti-abortion protests, you’ll see that they tend to be mostly women, including quite a few young women. Maybe women are more likely to protest it on the streets, but in any case they make up a large part of the opposition.

        1. IIRC polling data normally has woman tilting very slightly anti-abortion compared to men.

          The much bigger effect is how religious people are, unsurprisingly. (Since women poll as being more religious than men, I guess it’s possible that controlling for that could get you to some conclusion about an equally religious slice of the population, but I don’t recall seeing anyone try this.)

          1. Doesn’t matter how you try to “slice” to control for religion, religious women who oppose unlimited abortion still count…and vote, which is the important part.

      2. EVER-Y-THING! is blamed on “old white men”. As an older (51) white man I have REALLY come to resent that attitude over the years. It always struck me as dumb, now I find it offensive – and not just b/c of my age. It has become more of a loud ringing (racist and sexist actually) mantra.

        1. I’m an old white guy, thirty years older than you David, and I’m really pissed off by this nonsense.

  2. The amazing thing is that ACLU didn’t just say “people” are impacted by abortion restrictions without specifying women; they worked their way around the compass to avoid saying women. Since they explicitly call out LGBT in one bullet, logically the other five bulleted groups are women, and even “the LGBT community” has women in it. As has been suggested in other contexts, it is as if the ACLU were denying that women exist. I think women are unlikely to see the ACLU as their advocate for any issue affecting them as women. If only there were some generally accepted term for people who could get pregnant. . . .

    1. Indeed. “Transpeople are people” is actually a fairly moderate statement that would probably be agreeable and acceptable to a larger portion of the population. While the syntactical structure is exactly the same, it just doesn’t have the same negative connotation. So why not say that instead? The ACLU seems to have gone out of its way to target their finger wagging at cis women, past women’s rights efforts, and things like Title IX.

      1. “Transwomen are women” gets you to women being compelled to share prison cells with men. “Transpeople are people” doesn’t. The former is much to be preferred, therefore, even though false. Perhaps even because it’s false: if you can get people to believe a lie you have much more power over them. Activists do this all across the political spectrum. People like to believe crazy shit.

  3. Sad to say, I think our friend Diana MacPherson’s principle has achieved totality among the Woke.

  4. I see where those are coming from who agree to use the preferred pronouns and so on; a little courtesy is better even if they don’t agree with the underlying mythology. But could it be that such courtesy has paved the way for the more radical TWAW claims?

    1. Since you ask a question, even if rhetorical, I’ll offer an answer: Yes.
      Part of it is the bias to yes that salespeople exploit. Say yes once and it’s psychologically hard to say No I don’t want the extended warranty.
      It’s deeper though. It goes to a fundamental question of what we are willing to accept as compelled belief. Ad baculum turns out not to be a fallacy.
      It just happened so fast.

  5. How is it that the National Women’s Law Center can even call themselves that? Surely it has to be the National People’s Law Center now.

    Someone should also inform them that mindless repetition comes off as juvenile, not emphatic.

    1. Canada’s former Minister of Climate Change was caught, well-lubricated in a tavern surrounded by earnest horny young acolytes, advising them on her first rule of politics: “If people don’t believe your message, just keep shouting it louder.”

  6. Mildly peeved centrists may grumble but will donate anyway; it’s the left flank that needs to be appeased.

    I usually trust that these organizations know what they are doing when it comes to fund-raising, but nevertheless, I am somewhat skeptical here. Is it really true that catering to the far left is the way to more donations? How do they know?

    After all, I’d expect most of their donations to be from well-off people. Which typically means older people; angry young 20-somethings don’t typically have the financial stability to cut $100, $1,000, or $10,000 charity checks. Now sure, some left influencer might be able to drum up big grassroots support. So maybe this is a play for the indirect donations they could get from a “Kardashian tweet”. But I bet most of the ACLU’s (& other organization’s) steady donations don’t come from that crowd. And that those donations won’t go away if that crowd gets angry at the ACLU for being insufficiently left.

    I offer the alternative hypothesis that the catering to the far left arises from two alternate reasons. First, because the younger part of their workforce is under the impression that youth’s opinion is extremely important. And second, because the older part of their workforce does not wish to test the theory that staying with the centrists causes no losses. The folks in charge are being told by their newest, brightest stars that doom and gloom will follow if they don’t cater to 20-somethings, and they are so excessively risk-averse as to believe it. But for my mind, I bet if they stayed more in line with their original mission and showed less kowtowing to the left, they might actually get more money flowing in.

  7. Lewis’s conclusion is the same as mine and spot on, “History suggests that society doesn’t care much about women, so maybe abortion rights will have more appeal if supporters invoke some other causes instead”

    1. That is chillingly bizarre but true. I can see the first man who becomes pregnant and wants an abortion in a restrictive state, told he can’t have one. The ACLU and the rest of the trans lobby takes up his cause and overnight, abortion laws start to fall. Just as you all said: If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.

      1. It is an old joke that the scientific discovery of male pregnancy would be followed by Congress passing a ‘right to abortion’ amendment 1 minute later.

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