New Zealand midwives’ organization deep-sixes words like “mother” and “woman”

November 10, 2022 • 11:45 am

As Luana Maroja wrote the other day, American science is becoming an appendage to ideology, and if facts don’t fit the ideology, well, we can just change the facts. We can also change the words used in medicine and science if they offend even a few people, and those changes come at the expense of scientific clarity.

The American Medical Association (AMA), for instance, issued a mammoth 54-page guide to ideologically proper language, beginning with a land acknowledgment to the Native Americans who once occupied the land occupied by the AMA’s headquarters, complete with the latest usages calculated to offend as few people as possible: words and phrases supposedly having “the potential to create and perpetuate harm.”  Some are okay but many are Pecksniffian, like this one. The second column are the offending phrases, the third gives the AMA’s replacement words.

Fortunately the AMA doesn’t go after “woman” or “mother” the way many have, replacing them with words like “womb-bearer”. But the New Zealand Midwifery Council has, as described in this article by Sarah Donovan, a sociologist at in the Department of Public Health at New Zealand’s University of Otago, who has also worked as a midwife. She’s also described in the article below this way: “Dr Donovan is a Health Sociologist and Adjunct Fellow in the School of Social and Cultural Studies at Victoria University of Wellington. She has previously undertaken research and policy advocacy on menstrual wellbeing, breastfeeding, and period poverty among New Zealand school pupils.”

But she’s angry at the bowdlerization of the Midwifery Council’s guiding document, which used to include the words “mother” and “woman”, but doesn’t any more. Click to read:

The words appear to be mostly Donovan’s:

The Midwifery Council of NZ is updating its Midwifery Scope of Practice guidance for midwives to entirely remove the words ‘mother’ and ‘woman’.

Health researcher and former midwife Dr Sarah Donovan says the move is likely to be out of step with public expectations in New Zealand about the profession of midwifery, including how it describes who it cares for.

The Midwifery Council is required by the Health Practitioners Competence Assurance Act (HPCA) to prescribe the scope of practice of a midwife. The Scope defines what it means to be a midwife in New Zealand.

With midwifery arguably the most woman-centred and mother-centred of all health professions, Donovan says clarification is needed on what evidence base and advice underpinned the Midwifery Council’s decision to remove these words entirely. The words ‘wahine’ and ‘māmā’, used almost universally in other maternity care material in New Zealand are also not used anywhere in the English language version of the document. The lack of these words seems conspicuous considering the inclusion of te reo in the English version for other terms.

“For a lot of people this will probably not make sense. Why erase these important words from midwifery in New Zealand? If this is about being inclusive, there is scope for terms to be used alongside each other. My understanding of what inclusive language in healthcare means is that it actually includes rather than excludes; it is additive of new terminology rather than removing widely-recognised and culturally cherished terms such as ‘mother’ and ‘māmā’

A reasonable question to ask would be – has the Midwifery Council actually sought the views of the population they serve, and of the wider NZ public on removing the words ‘mother’ and ‘woman’ from Midwifery care in NZ? Have they asked mothers-to-be as a group how they would wish to be described instead?”

This link gives  previous version of the NZ Midwives Scope of Practice document referred to women and mothers throughout.

Here’s the new “scope of practice” with the ideologically acceptable changes.

And a document comparing some of the changes (there are more). Note that the word whānau doest not mean “woman” in Māori but, in this context, “extended family“. In other words, anyone. The words “woman” and “mother” have been expunged.


Why did they do this? Their explanation is this:

We believe the revised scope is whānau centred.  It upholds the mana of Te Ao Māori and Tangata Tiriti worldviews. It is inclusive and affirms and enables us to practice in ways that meet the needs of all whānau in Aotearoa. The revised scope will support our ability to address a detrimental imbalance of representation, understanding and appreciation of Māori knowledge, values and practice.

The words are gone because “mother” and “women” are not inclusive enough, for they don’t include biological women who identify as men (and perhaps have had medical treatment to make their bodies more similar to those of men). One could perhaps avoid this problem by using “biological women”, which is accurate, but that too would offend transsexual women, who are surely a tiny minority of people to whom this document applies. At the expense of clarity, they use a word that means “extended family” rather than either “woman”, “mother”, or, for that matter, “trans woman.”

34 thoughts on “New Zealand midwives’ organization deep-sixes words like “mother” and “woman”

  1. … complete with the latest usages calculated to offend as few people as possible: …

    More precisely, calculated to offend as few “marginalised” people as possible. There’s whole swathes of people who they couldn’t care less if they are offended, and nowadays that includes (it seems) women.

    Sorry ladies, you’re no longer high enough up the oppression hierarchy to matter. The poor oppressed and “marginalised” trans people have surpassed you.

    1. Absolutely, Coel – plenty of women are offended by the new “inclusive” language that erases them. It is all to appease hurt feelings, usually of transwomen. As the saying goes:

      The fact that society believes a man who says he’s a woman over a woman who says he isn’t is proof that society knows exactly who is the man and who the woman.

  2. I can’t hamutay this. Try to umanchay how sasachakuy it would be for people to ñawinchay my comments if I was to sprinkle them with Quechua as a way to signal my affiliation with an oppressed culture. It would drive readers waqa, but at least insiders would know that I am a member of their ayllu.

    1. There are two fascinating linguistic aspects here:

      a) To some level, NZ English (like many other dialects around the world) is dropping vestigial grammatical gender. English really only has linguistic remnants of the Germanic gender system, and I don’t consider it a big loss. I don’t mind that we call actresses ‘actors’, either.

      b) NZ English is developing into the first intentional creole language that I have seen, a new language that is unintelligible to the speaker’s transoceanic cousins, literal cousins, people separated by a generation or two cannot understand this. (And no, this is not a ‘mixed’ or ‘hybrid’ language. That occurs when most speakers speak both languages fluently.)

      I do not like seeing creolization when usage of a single standardized language is totally sufficient for international communication. Children born today in New Zealand will have trouble communicating with English speakers in two or three decades’ time. This is a disservice to the children of New Zealand and to anyone who may want to interact with them.

  3. I am waiting to see if the Maori names themselves for family members will need to be forced into changing such as a sister’s brother vs a brother’s sister and so on.

    1. Of course, I’m fragile and an OWG (non-rich), but in my many days in Rarotonga (from whence the NZ bunch vaka’d) it seemed the locals were quite aware and confident of their sex/gender etc. Could be a result of the London Missionary Society’s influence I suppose. But the sex/gender roles seemed what they were, even outside the “Island Night” events, which BTW had a huge, even majority, local attendance. If only I could go back and talk to the ladies at the Avarua Church (a favorite of this atheist, for the music and the community) and get their perspective on this sort of thing. And visit the grave of Robert Frisbee, too, of course.

  4. To me there is a considerable element of danger in all of this and many professionals are disenchanted, forced to comply or face censure and are very worried about loss of their jobs.

    Apart from issues with pronouns and descriptors for women etc, elevating a small demographic group above others will bring division. We must speak out against it because bad feeling and mistrust lies ahead. If you are interested further in the New Zealand context, here is a short piece that I published last week:

    David Lillis

  5. We should not focus only on the New Zealand Midwives. The problematic character of the AMA/AAMC guide to language is worth attention. It’s good to have the link to the whole 54-page guide. Also it’s important that the equity professionals responsible for this are in the AAMC, not just the AMA. This organization is much more entirely devoted to issues of equity and social justice. It is interesting that they take themselves to be a field of scholarship, but claims like the supposed harmfulness of using a word like “combat” in speaking of disease are put forward with no empirical support.

  6. According to one google
    a married woman considered in relation to her spouse
    and a less charitable meaning
    a woman, especially an old or uneducated one.
    So what’s with the mid-WIVES then?


    1. An old pal of mine, a GP, wrote a fairly lighthearted book about the medical profession about 30 years ago. He referred to midwives throughout as ‘madwives’.

      He got a lot of letters.

    1. Sorry, if this is something you wrote, you’re not allowed to advertise your own writings on this site as a way of “responding” to me. You respond in the comments, not by directing us to your site.

      I’m not at all keen on your critical comment in the first sentence, either, which is uncivil.

  7. I see that 3. para 2 replaces the encouragement of breastfeeding with providing “culturally safe care”, which would mean no gentle paternalistic discouragement of formula feeding. Silliness about “chest feeding” aside, this will not be good for Maori babies.

    Most of rest of the document is harmless drivel which reads similar to modern nursing teaching documents, just dressed up with unintelligible code words. Even 2. para 3 which seems to downplay the need to get the obstetrician involved in emergencies is not really dangerous. Midwives the world over teach their acolytes that at the first sign of trouble you call the OB–he has likely never heard of the labouring mum before that moment–and the instant he arrives to see the head crowning it’s, “Your patient, Doctor.” Everything that happens after that is his fault, not yours.

  8. Looks like our once basically sound public health system (it has its flaws, but nothing is perfect) is now becoming a joke.

  9. This nonsense can get even crazier…:

    Students studying midwifery at a prominent University in the United Kingdom were taught that biological males can get pregnant and give birth through their penis before instructors hastily edited a workbook they were given.

    Reduxx has exclusively obtained teaching resources from concerned students studying midwifery at Edinburgh Napier University in Scotland. The students, who wished to remain anonymous out of concern for their careers, were initially provided biologically impossible instruction on giving care to males who were pregnant and in labor.

    In a module about caring for women during childbirth the students were initially provided a “Skills Workbook” on catheterization that contained significant guidance about handling male genitals, and caring for biologically male “birthing people.”

    According to the workbook, students were advised: “It is important to note that while most times the birthing person will have female genitalia, you may be caring for a pregnant or birthing person who is transitioning from male to female and may still have external male genitalia.”

  10. Bwahaha! I love finding a one string that, when you unravel it, undermines their entire paradigm. Are you ready for this? Add the line:

    “Avoid using the term ‘avoid’ because it is exclusionary, violent, and causes psychological harm. It reminds us of the emotional harms caused by social ostracism.”

    If anyone is able to sneak that line into a press release, I will award you 100 Internet points!

  11. This is insultingly stupid. What amazes me is the full frontal promotion of the Maori language which (again I say) very few actual NZers, and only Maori, speak. Resurrecting a nearly dead language people don’t speak in the name of woke alienates many people there I’m told. And, as usual, blowback/2nd order effects aren’t considered. The policy alienates and divides kiwis.
    NYC (formerly of Auckland)

    1. Not that cultural preservation isn’t a vital thing and I do support basic Te Reo classes in our schools. Not a total saturation thing, but a basic grounding. For what it’s worth some of the few teaches at Wellington High School who treated me with any respect were the Te Reo teachers. I was a hopeless student, mostly was being a high-functioning aspie when only the low-functioning ones really got help (like it really worked, I remember one who was cluelessly talked through everything!), add being intellectual, well read and intelligent (another reason I wasn’t helped, too smart!) in what was basically Wellingtons garbage dump for its inner-city scum (they put on a good show to my folks about learning support).
      And yet they still treated me with the respect I deserved, and I returned it. In part it’s from the notion that elders are orally obliged too mentor and support the youth, but also, they were nice guys. That was 20 years ago, and the science classes were no better, just worthless over religious.

  12. I think that it really bears emphasizing how chilling it is to replace “women” or “mothers” not with some stupid woke-ism like “birthing persons”, but with the word “whānau”. Terms like “birthing persons” (or “chestfeeding”) are at least borderline offensive, and are certainly eye-rollingly stupid.

    But it’s genuinely disturbing to go from talking about providing “necessary support” to *women*, to speaking *exclusively* about promoting the health and “meeting the varied health needs” and being “responsive” to the needs of the *families* (or extended families/clans) of these now-unnamed people who are the ones who are actually giving birth. At one point we have “whānau…who are pregnant, birthing, and postnatal”–how the heck does an “extended family” get pregnant, or give birth?

    This use of whānau really seems to me to be not only stupid, but to be actively patriarchal–shades of the Taliban, here! By this ideology the people giving birth (“women” or “mothers”) are completely subsumed by the group, and it is the needs of the *group* that should be prioritized, not the needs of the actual human beings (mother and child) who OUGHT to be at the center of midwifery.

  13. It just seems to me that…if one is pregnant, or birthing, or if one engages in the sort of sexual activity that could make one pregnant, i.e. the sort that could introduce sperm into one’s uterus…then one is not a “man” of any kind. One might be bisexual or consider one’s self nonbinary, and if so more power to one, but in what meaningful sense could such a one consider one’s self a “man” or “male”? Makes no sense to me.

    1. if one engages in the sort of sexual activity that could make one pregnant, […] then one is not a “man” of any kind

      I won’t dispute your underlying idea, but your wording works against you. Sure, that person could be a “man” of a certain kind; the kind listed in Definition 3 here:

      (I know, it’s pedantic, but it might help the next time you express that idea. And your second ‘one’ should be ‘oneself’; ‘one’ is an indefinite pronoun, meaning its referent is not carried over from one use to the next. Replace every instance of ‘one’ in your example with ‘someone’, and you’ll see what I mean. )

      1. I take your points, thank you.
        But yeah, they are pedantic.
        Use of ‘man’ to mean ‘human’ or ‘humankind’ is exceedingly rare anymore, thanks in part to feminism. And I submit that in older quotations it’s not clear whether or not the writer wanted to include females. But yeah.
        As for my use of ‘one’, what happened was that I had originally written the whole thing in second person but decided it sounded too accusatory.
        But “make oneself pregnant” clearly implies simultaneous hermaphroditism. Further editing required.

    2. Re “… biological women who identify as men…” from the OP:

      I often wonder if the (very few) suchlike who give birth think of themselves as “fathers.”

  14. Having lived in and following US language habits, I am actually quite pleased with the elimination of aggressivity-building hyperboles in the discourse (war, combat, hero etc). Also because it has a tendancy to personnalize things and veer into chamanism (the strategy of the virus). This is the only part that I agree with of the whole newspeak.

  15. @MEBuckner: thank you. I also find it appalling to think of women’s needs being subordinate to the larger family’s/whanau’s. The idea that a “whanau” can be said to be “planning a pregnancy, [be] pregnant, [be] birthing, [needing] postnatal” care is like something out of The Handmaid’s Tale.

    1. Sadly this is often a typical standpoint in modern day New Zealand and is present in most realms that involve women and children, including child protection, where the views of the father and whanau and their “mana” (pride) are given more regard than the safety of the child. The outcomes are as you would expect.

    1. Depends what sense of “nanny” you mean. If you mean the person who looks after a child, maybe “whangai”. If you mean like patronising nanny state, I’m not sure.

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