Scientists abjure “woman” in favor of “birthing persons” and “pregnant persons”

July 7, 2022 • 11:45 am

In April, the Washington Post publicized its desire to adopt more “gender-neutral language”, citing the paper’s earlier pubication of “A guide to the words we use in our gender coverage“. That guide sets out how the paper will use a panoply of words related to gender identity, sexual orientation, and so on. Nowhere in that article is there a guide showing how to use the words “man” or “woman”. Women are mentioned only in these two entries:

Transgender describes someone whose gender identity is different from the sex they were assigned at birth (this can also be shortened to “trans”). For example, a transgender woman is someone who was listed as male at birth but whose gender identity is female.

Nonbinary is a term used by people whose experience of gender identity and gender expression do not align neatly as either “man” or “woman,” the two categories Western countries have generally used to classify gender.

Note the present perfect tense: “Western countries have generally used“, implying that that time is past. 

Now, scientific journals and societies, in a race to determine who can display the most virtue (euphemistically described as “becoming inclusive”) are deep-sixing the term “woman” as well. You can see this in the following Science article, which is actually not bad, about how the Dobbs case, and the end of national Roe v Wade legislation, will affect science . Click to read

Many of the points the article makes are good ones. Will women scientists boycott states that don’t allow abortions, or not have meetings there? Will women scientists consider taking jobs in such states? Will pregnant women scientists go to conferences in states where, if something goes amiss, they can’t get good medical care? These are questions that women scientists should ponder, and I already have one colleague who says she will never even go to a state like Texas or Mississippi that bans abortions.

(One idea just crossed my mind: will women scientists also boycott meetings in countries that have strict anti-abortion laws. For compared to a fair number of countries, even in Europe, many U.S. states have more liberal abortion laws).

But I digress. These issues, of course, aren’t unique to science, but scientists do have a tendency to go to professional gatherings, and these things must be considered.

No, the article is fine, but we can see scientists using Post-ian “inclusive” language. First of all, the article itself does not contain the word “woman” except in two quotes from women scientists, one of which uses “woman” in conjunction with another term (my emphasis)

The Supreme Court’s reversal will likely be felt most strongly in groups that are already underrepresented in science, says Nicole Williams, the outreach director for the nonprofit 500 Women Scientists. “Being an African-American woman, and just knowing the stats—that Black birthing persons already experience high levels of pregnancy-related mortality—the overturning of Roe versus Wade is a death sentence for Black women scientists and birthing persons.

I wasn’t quite sure what the last sentence meant: whether “Black women scientists and birthing persons” referred only to black women, both scientists and pregnant ones, or intended the term “birthing persons” to be only non-black pregnant women. But I think it’s the former: Williams is talking about problems that hit black women harder. But “birthing persons”? Nope. And I wonder what Williams means when she calls herself an “African-American woman”. Isn’t she an “African-American birthing person”? And shouldn’t the organization be “500 Birthing People Scientists”?

I’m only partly joking; as I note below, this purging of language really isn’t inclusive, for it erases a class that has its own identity: biological women. More in a second.

One more change of language at the end, quoting a social scientist who is pregnant and worries about emergency situations as she had a miscarriage:

“As a pregnant person,” Alves says, she wouldn’t feel comfortable attending conferences in locations where, if something went awry, “I couldn’t get medical care that I needed and that reflects my values.”

It’s hard not to imagine that Alves deliberately chose to use “pregnant person” instead of “pregnant woman.”

Well, so what? Language changes, the advocates of inclusivity will say. But remember this eloquent and thoughtful NYT article, which I wrote about recently (click to read):

Read the whole thing; I’ll just give a small bit about so-called inclusivity:

But in a world of chosen gender identities, women as a biological category don’t exist. Some might even call this kind of thing erasure.

. . . Tolerance for one group need not mean intolerance for another. We can respect transgender women without castigating females who point out that biological women still constitute a category of their own — with their own specific needs and prerogatives.

If only women’s voices were routinely welcomed and respected on these issues. But whether Trumpist or traditionalist, fringe left activist or academic ideologue, misogynists from both extremes of the political spectrum relish equally the power to shut women up.

For the Washington Post, Science, and many other media, as well as people themselves, women apparently don’t exist as a biological category.

h/t: Luana

75 thoughts on “Scientists abjure “woman” in favor of “birthing persons” and “pregnant persons”

  1. WaPo, Science, etc., are the early indicator of Dems’ impressive ingenuity for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Whenever they get a large and energized majority on their side (e.g., pro-choice in the wake of Dobbs; racial causes in the wake of George Floyd), they find a way to turn the majority against them (defund the police/burn it all down; pressuring people to quit using words like “woman” and “mother” in abortion debates). I suspect fifty years from now we will still be using the word “woman,” we will still need police in our inner cities, and the Dems will still be squandering what could have been majorities for real policy change.

  2. When my wife gave birth to our daughter 40+ years ago, there were more than one birthing person there. They worked in the Beverly Birthing Center in Massachusetts. Many of the birthing persons were nurses.

  3. I am long past child bearing, but states that so hate those who are, are states I do not want to contribute to so much as a nickel for any reason. If they hate those who can get pregnant so much, how would their ERs treat grannies? They leave me with the idea that if you can’t bear a child, you aren’t worth much. Nope. I won’t even drive through one of those states. If I still worked for a living, it would not work in or visit any of those states. And I would not travel to them for any reason. My life and health are too important to me to take a chance like that.

    1. Hypothetical: Your health goes south (excuse the pun). You have a rare cancer. Your oncologist suggests that you visit the experts at MD Anderson Hospital in Houston, Texas. MD Anderson is a world leader in treatment of cancer. But Houston, is in Texas, a state which is about to ban abortion. Do you go ?

      1. Lots of alternatives to MD Anderson – Sloan Kettering, Dana Farber, Hopkins, etc. I once worked at Anderson, but plan not to ever go to Texas again.

  4. This Orwellian topic has been draining me lately, and my conclusion is that everything after gamete size (thanks to PCC(E) for pointing out gamete size) is a complex blend of genes and – IMO – mostly psychology.

    Male/female language/terms have a fundamental importance and help the cause here, IMO.

    Thanks for letting me VENT a bit.

    [ sigh ]

  5. It is far simpler and much less awkward to just let the word “woman” become broader, to mean a range of people in whatever context is needed. Like the word “guys” has become. Sorority girls will use that to refer to each other, for example (“C’mon, guys!”), and no one bats an eye.
    The only hitch is that the word “woman” is a bit wrong for trans men who still possess a uterus. But meanwhile “birthing person” is bad and it can be hurtful for people who identify as female but cannot possibly give birth for all sorts of reasons.

    1. Indeed, “you guys” is in fact the 2nd pl. pronoun — employed to disambiguate, as “you” serves as both 2nd sg. and 2nd pl. in contemporary standard English — in the most widespread American English dialect(s), comparable to “you all” or “y’all” in more southern dialects and even “yous” in some east coast dialects, not to mention some of the solutions in some of the Black English sociolects. To name just a few.

      1. Edit: this was meant to be a free-standing comment, not a reply to Mark @5.

        So the Fourth of July shooter in Illinois who evaded police should have been described as disguised as a what, then?

    2. I often wonder why people are so worried about including trans-men. One of the fundamental things about being a man (and something that I suspect contributes a lot to the problems of the patriarchal society that disadvantages women) is that the men do not end up literally carrying the baby.

      If you are a trans man and you deliberately get pregnant, I think I would question your commitment to “living as a man” – whatever that means – and referring to you as a woman in the context of being pregnant really shouldn’t be a big deal.

  6. I’m waiting for the day when I can no longer refer to the sex of the research animals I describe in papers and grants as male or female. Or is this already happening?

  7. In the interest of promoting understanding, without comment on usefulness, a brief clarification:

    Women – comprises cis women and trans women
    Birthing person – comprises cis women and trans men

    The two terms are not interchangeable.

    The term women is still in use, and the concept that trans women are women still applies.

    1. But saying that “birthing person” comprises “cis women” is nonsensical. There are heaps of cis women who have not, are not and will not be birthing, for a myriad of reasons. No? Or what am I missing?

    2. But as you show, these terms ARE interchangeable with respect to cis-women. What if a cis-woman does not want to be referred to as as simply a birthing person, or to to be co-categorized with trans-women? Why can’t they have a discrete category?

    3. Birthing people is meant to be used when referencing something about pregnancies or giving birth, so that you include both cis women and trans men. Otherwise, use women, with the understanding that it includes both cis women and trans women.

      1. Again, what if cis-women do not WANT to be co-categorized with trans-women (i.e. biological males) or referred to a “birthing people” (i.e. a neologism for biological females)? What is wrong with allowing cis-women a discrete category?

        1. They have one: cis-women.

          I get that terminology like ‘birthing person’ and especially terms like ‘chest-feeder’ are reductive and feel insulting. My position is that those terms, if used at all, should be kept to technical reports specifically discussing certain bodily parts/functions (as other comments have stated, it would be interesting to see terms referring to male parts/functions). Otherwise, we should keep using ‘women’ and ‘female’, and mention/discuss exceptions when they come up.

          One helpful strategy would be to specifically use ‘male’ and ‘female’ to refer to biological sex and ‘men’ and ‘women’ to refer to gender, but I doubt this is feasible, given how interchangeable the words have become.

          My question is: why would cis-women not want to be co-categorized with trans-women?

          1. Why not just ask them? If your opinion wouldn’t be swayed by what they tell you, then no need to bother, I guess.

          2. Because women want single-sex services and facilities – and don’t want men to self-identify themselves into those spaces for reasons of privacy, dignity, and safety. In the UK, it is perfectly legal to exclude transwomen from those services and facilities, even if they have obtained a Gender Recognition Certificate to change their legal gender.

          3. Sorry, Leslie – that was a reply to jake, as is what follows.

            Women upset by transwomen attending their female rape crisis sessions have been told that they are transphobic and to “reframe their trauma” – because their needs obviously come behind those of a biological male identifying as a woman and seeking “validation”. This nonsense is going too far.

          4. Q: What’s the difference between a woman and a transwoman?

            A: Men listen to transwomen.

            I’m here all week, folx! (Actually, it’s too true to be funny.)

          5. Thank you for your response to my question, JezGrove. I agree that in certain cases, like with women’s sports and women’s prisons, there needs to be discretion, ideally on a case-by-case basis and with empirical evidence. However, evidence that trans women pose a significant danger to cis women when using most women’s facilities is lacking. Additionally, trans women face increased risks when denied access to women’s facilities. We need to ensure the safety, privacy, and dignity of all parties involved.

            I agree that some progressive circles can be misogynistic. In these circles, misogyny is often performed in the name of social justice, which is unacceptable. However, most sexist men are even less likely to listen to trans women than they are to cis women. Do you think the misogynists in the Republican Party listen to trans women? No. They call trans women ‘groomers’ who are corrupting children.

          6. The modifier “cis” means “someone whose gender identity corresponds with the sex assigned to them at birth.” It is used to make women into a (privileged) sub-category of their own sex. It isn’t a neutral descriptor, but depends on an elaborate belief system which many women don’t share, and consider harmful.

            It’s being imposed on women who say “no.” It’s forcing a pseudoscientific framework on society through the use of vocabulary. It emphasizes the idea that the culturally-constructed, sexist ideals of “gender” is what makes someone a man or woman.

            Those are a few reasons why women might not want to be co-categorized with trans-identified males.

          7. Thank you for your succinct and clear answer, Sastra. I agree that the idea of gender is harmful and should be abolished. However, that is a utopian ideal, not something we have already achieved. Gender as a collection of cultural-constructed and sexist ideas is something we still have to deal with, and I would argue that the concepts of “cis” and “trans” (and non binary to a greater extent) are intermediates on a path to abolishing gender, as they help attack the idea that one’s gender role is not determined by one’s biological sex.

            I don’t think that women should be forced to call themselves ‘cis-women’. But should women who want to exclude trans-women from womanhood be allowed to enforce their belief system on those who don’t share it and consider it harmful? The opinion piece referred to in this post calls for inclusivity, but a lot of the comments seem committed to excluding trans people by imposing a belief system which they (and others) say ‘no’ to.

          8. Feminism has traditionally promoted the view that a woman is someone with a female body and any kind of personality. Categorizing women as having any kind of body but a “female personality” doesn’t look like a particularly good way to eliminate sexist ideas about men & women. Defining our fundamental identity by where we fit on an inborn Gender Spectrum doesn’t seem to be progressing in the direction of eliminating gender either.

            Both the transgender and gender critical belief systems point to science and reason as arbiters. That suggests that these are rational claims which can be discovered to be correct or incorrect — not religious faiths which can only win out by force.

          9. Ah. So as I suggested above, you asked, they told you to get lost, and you don’t like their answer. What part of No don’t you understand?

            Last sentence first paragraph makes no sense to me. Did you mistype?

            Every tribe gets to determine its own criteria for whom they admit to membership.
            By definition of a tribe, outsiders have no say in the matter. For the humans who belong to the tribe “Women”, having a male body with a penis is an absolute exclusion. Whether women find male bodies attractive or repulsive, no woman thinks that a man’s body is enough like hers that he can join the tribe just because he imagines he somehow has female gender.. All tribes have to be vigilant against the dangers posed by false signalers. A man trying to pass as a woman with the “transwoman” disguise is a threat to the safety and cohesiveness of the tribe. He must be exposed and cast out, just like a police agent discovered in a biker gang.

            The claim that men presenting as women are at risk of violence if they use men’s toilets might be true. But that is their problem. Women are not going to let you make it their problem.

            Women don’t want you and they won’t accept you. That’s all they need to say. It’s our duty to the women we care about to help them make that stick. It doesn’t matter if you think that’s not fair.

          10. That would be fine if trans-women (i.e. males with penises and testicles likely still attached, and in some cases still in use to have sex with cis-women) were not invading their spaces without consent. Yet that is not the case. Why is this so hard to understand?

    4. Steve, I appreciate your distinction between clarity vs. usefulness, but for many of us it’s not true that “trans women are women” so that clarification doesn’t make much sense. Trans women are not women – they’re men.

      The more I read what others (much smarter and more well-read than I am) write about this, the clearer it seems that there’s just sex (female or male) but no gender. We have good collective nouns for people in those two sexes (women and men).

      “Gender identity” is not a real thing, and it’s certainly not a soul-like immanent and innate property that each person can access by introspection. It’s just variation in personality, presentation, and style. It would be amazing if it were otherwise, considering we’re all just mammals. There’s no good evidence that human mammals have a “gender identity” property of the brain that’s innate, inborn, and novel compared to other mammals. “Trans women” are just men with a combination of personality and style that’s unusual for males.

      That all seems great to me. Variation is awesome. The tragic part is when TRAs (mostly male, at least on twitter) try to squeeze all that interesting variation in personality & style into traditional sex stereotypes, and teens (mostly female, at least on tiktok and tumblr) are encouraged to manage their anxiety about puberty by medically transitioning to conform to one of those stereotypes.

      1. Its getting pretty well accepted to say that trans women are women, bc that is what they want to be called and there is a sizable faction who are agreeable to it.
        The main sticking point to some is whether they can be called “female”, since that term was meant to be centered on biological sex (having ovarian tissue, specifically).

        1. Women are already annoyed that the word “woman” is being taken away from them without “female” being purloined by men, too. They are endlessly exhorted to “Be Kind!” and empathetic, but no kindness or empathy ever seems to be returned to them.

          Transwoman India Willoughby recently posted with righteous glee about discovering new gender neutral toilet facilities at Manchester airport and then deliberately choosing to ignore them and instead walk across the concourse to use the explicitly women only ones.

        2. Yep agreed some are willing to say trans women are women. But I’m sort of with Jez: trans women are only women in their imaginations. One doesn’t have to redefine “woman” in order to offer respect and dignity to someone who just has a combination of style and personality that’s unusual for their sex. At least I hope so.

    5. But transwomen are not women – except in their imaginations. The term “cis” is offensive to many. And the health needs of women and transwomen are different – ditto those of “prostate havers” and transmen. (Funny how men get to keep their sex class label without any Woke circumlocations.)

  8. Would a solution to this be using male and female as nouns as well as adjectives?
    I’m not big Tom Wolfe fan but all of this wokism takes me back to his piece, Radical Chic.

    1. The only solution necessary is to ignore these people and use man and woman like we always did. A pregnant woman is a woman who is pregnant. There is no other kind.

      These people are trying to get you to play their game because they are afraid themselves of Twitter mobs. Just say No.

  9. As a woman, I do feel that a bunch of men and some women out there are trying to erase me and all my friends who consider themselves women. If we are to be considered “birthing persons,” is that valid only for the part of our lives when we can actually give birth??? Prior to that there are “girls.” But what about after menopause when that is no longer an issue???
    And since the customary noun for women is being deleted, perhaps we should find another term for “men.” Maybe “ejaculating persons?” If one gender can be relegated to one particular part of its anatomy, then fair play would suggest we do it for the other gender as well.

    1. If “ejaculating persons” is used to refer to men only, then it’s illegitimately exclusionary, because: Google “female ejaculation”! So we need to be more precise: “penilely ejaculating persons” vs. “non-penilely ejaculating persons”. – I’m just kidding… 😉

    2. The Brits, of course, have an expression that would do just as well as “ejaculating person”: “wanker”. Just like German “Wichser”. Too bad there’s not a colloquial equivalent in American English. So, I suggest we replace “man/men” with “wanker/wankers”.

  10. One point I think is important is that ‘pregnant person’ includes girls. Because female children, who are not yet women, get pregnant. I’ve got no beef, bit do prefer pregnant to birthing.

  11. What does this “assigned” at birth mean? When I was pulled out of my mother’s vagina all those years ago (I was born before the 1970s, which is before ultrasound was in common practice), I was DEEMED to be a boy when the folks in the delivery woman saw my JohnThomas and accompanying balls. I don’t believe I was “assigned” anything, but, sure, my status was noted for the record, but that’s about it.

    1. Yes, unusual emphasis is put on what the doctor says in the maternity ward.

      But in modern times, as you noted – the ultrasound – the fashion is to have (shudder…) “gender reveal” parties, prior to birth. Which is fine, of course,…

      1. I laughed when I read “shudder.”

        I could be wrong, but I don’t think my parents had “gender reveal” parties for the five children they had in the late 1950s and into the mid 1960s.

    2. Sex is fixed at conception and nowadays is usually observed during ultrasound scans during pregnancy before being again observed and recorded at birth.

      1. Chromosomal sex is determined at fertilization; then comes gonadal sex, and then phenotypic sex. They almost always track accordingly, but not 100% so

  12. I was thinking about this yesterday. I think the push for inclusiveness of people who profess to be something other than their birth sex is driving this idea that there aren’t two sexes. Since men are the problem in so many cases for identitarians, they can’t very well do away with them. Their only choice is to make women disappear. We should fight it.

  13. “assigned fe/male at birth”, “listed as fe/male at birth” – How I hate these Wokespeak expressions suggesting that sex isn’t an objective natural reality babies are born with, but merely a social construction through linguistic labeling!

    “[T]here is no “objective” or natural sex…it is performatively constructed.”

    (Morgenroth, Thekla, and Michelle K. Ryan. “Gender Trouble in Social Psychology: How can Butler’s Work Inform Experimental Social Psychologists’ Conceptualization of Gender?” Frontiers in Psychology 9/1320 (2018): 239–247.)

    1. Judith Butler is one of the godmothers of postmodern gender/queer theory, and she denaturalizes the concept of sex by suggesting that it be reduced to the nonbiological concept of gender:

      “If the immutable character of sex is contested, perhaps this construct called “sex” is as culturally constructed as gender; indeed, perhaps it was always already gender, with the consequence that the distinction between sex and gender turns out to be no distinction at all. It would make no sense, then, to define gender as the cultural interpretation of sex, if sex itself is a gendered category.”

      (Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1999. pp. 9-10)

      Amia Srinivasan, a professor of social and political theory at the university of Oxford, agrees with Butler:

      “Sex is, then, a cultural thing posing as a natural one. Sex, which feminists have taught us to distinguish from gender, is itself already gender in disguise.”

      (Srinivasan, Amia. The Right to Sex. London: Bloomsbury, 2021. p. xii)

  14. I liked that one: “the two categories Western countries have generally used to classify gender.” Apparently, the sex binary is an arbitrary invention of Western culture. And there were apparently never any categories for other “genders” in the West, or were there? Except for 3 grammatical genders in Germanic languages, or a word like eunuch (why does nobody identify as a eunuch, now that getting rid of testes is a normal medical procedure for people who identify as a someone without testes?) or tomboys or bluestockings or androgynous women or viragoes or amazons or fags or hermaphrodites or any number of traditional terms now no longer in vogue that designate people whose gender role presentation and/or possibly sex development is non-stereotypical for the time.
    As far as I know, in cultures with additional, socially accepted “genders”, trans people or what we would call trans people today are in one of the additional genders and are not lumped with either male or female, so transwomen are not women there. It’s the trans activists who insist on the binary, only it has to be the one of their choice.
    @Ruthann, thanks for ejaculating persons!

    1. Yup, I think the “two spirit” thing is basically an (arguably homophobic) re-labelling of gay men into a “not real men” category – although the indigenous people that did so at least open openly accepted that “non-gender conforming” people existed, I suppose.

  15. The word “mother” is no longer legitimate either, according to postmodern ideologues such as Lauren Dinour, a professor of nutrition and food studies, because…

    “By using gendered terms like woman and mother when conducting and reporting lactation research, making infant feeding recommendations, or implementing breastfeeding policies, we risk alienating an already marginalized population. To be sure, several studies have reported how using heterosexual and woman-focused lactation language in obstetric and pediatric practice settings can misgender, isolate, and harm transmasculine parents and nonheteronormative families.”

    “In the event that two parents co-nurse (i.e., are both providing their own human milk to their infant) and a distinction must be made between parents, terms like ‘‘gestational parent’’ or ‘‘birthing parent’’ can be used to signify the parent who was pregnant and birthed the infant, while ‘‘nongestational parent’’ or ‘‘nonbirthing parent’’ can indicate the partner. These latter terms are not only inclusive for transgender and gender nonbinary individuals but also for lesbian couples.”

    (Dinour, Lauren M. “Speaking Out on ‘Breastfeeding’ Terminology: Recommendations for Gender-Inclusive Language in Research and Reporting.” Breastfeeding Medicine 14/8 (2019): 523–532.)

  16. There was a time when people wrote songs with titles such as “When a Man Loves a Woman” (Percy Sledge). That’s a big no-no nowadays, but you may use the alternative title “When an Ejaculator Loves a Gestator”! 😉

  17. Google’s Ngram is useful and interesting with terms like “binary” and “nonbinary” – users can type the terms in here :

    “Nonbinary” gets under my skin because as we know, “binary” means 0 or 1. Well, we could take Robert Pirsig’s argument from his novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and say ok, there is a state when the transistors are not energized – the computer is unplugged – and call that a mu state.

    So three states : 0, 1, or mu.

    But no, say whoever coined “nonbinary”. It is a “spectrum”. Neither 0 nor 1, … I mean, am I missing something or is that the reasoning? And if it is, then clearly a “nonbinary” individual has male or female gametes – but they can’t just say they are male but … aren’t these personality characteristics up to the observers to decide? Isn’t whether a person seems to _ behave_like a girl or boy a matter of opinion, at some point?

    I find it unnecessarily complicated and confusing.

      1. [ comment before coffee ]

        I’m not even sure male OR female is appropriate to call “binary”, as there is not an exponent of base 2. I’m not sure where that notion of male/female as “binary” came from – it cannot be serious, because the base 2 makes no sense with male female.

        Male OR female is surely Boolean. Now I’m not sure of the OR there.

  18. “Inseminable” and “inseminated” are good options, too. Or “vaginated”, but that would include operated trans women.

    1. They don’t have a vagina – their neovagina is a shallow (no pun intended) imitation with none of the functionality.

  19. It’s amazing: the trans and progressive community have continually been up in arms about people using their preferred pronouns, even to the point of saying it’s “violence” or “erasing their existence” to not use their preferred pronouns.

    And yet to the majority of women who don’t want to be called “birthing person” or any of the buzzard substitutes, they are told “nope, sorry, we are foisting this new term on you, and if you object we’ll complain about how you are disrespecting our pronouns again!”

  20. A few days ago, I used the word slave in a text. The spell checker called it an error, and suggested enslaved person. There has been a significant delay, but we finally arrived in 1984.

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