Last summer I presented at a radical birth
conference called Yonifest, held in Quebec, Canada. I was pregnant at the time
and fully in awe to be included in such a powerful gathering. Everyone there
was deeply committed to exploring and celebrating birth. I presented my own
workshop on transgender experiences of pregnancy, birth and nursing, and also
spoke alongside the famed and revered American
midwife Ina May Gaskin on a panel.
After my presentation, I received wonderful
comments and insightful questions, and I
also saw fear. One midwife recounted how her organization had begun to
change the language in its documents to be inclusive of trans and genderqueer
birthing people, and she told me, “but I don’t want to erase the word ‘woman.’”
She had tears in her eyes and was truly upset. This same midwife had just sat
through my two-hour presentation. She was there because she was interested in
supporting trans people. She was not dismissive.
I don’t want to erase the word ‘woman’ either. I
get where these midwives are coming from -- somewhat. Women are a group who
have been and continue to be oppressed in many ways by a patriarchal society.
This includes women having a terrible lack of control over their bodies during
the birth process. This is not about individual patient rights. For many years,
one group of people, primarily men who do not have the ability to give birth,
has controlled another group of people during the birth process, a group that
is primarily women. Women and midwives have worked incredibly hard to try to
regain social and legal rights to use women’s knowledge in the birth process. I
have deep respect for this struggle.
Yet, trans, genderqueer, and intersex
people have been giving birth for as long as women-identified people have and
they have also encountered oppression. The open letter presumes that to be
trans and to give birth is some new phenomenon of the last few years. Trans
people giving birth are newly visible because
today we are able to transition hormonally and surgically as well as engage our
bodies in pregnancy, but there have always been people who identified
differently from women whilst experiencing birth.
Kathleen Fahy, an Australian midwife and
professor, told me at Yonifest that she remembered when her profession changed
the language first to providing ‘family-centred’ care, and then later to
‘woman-centred’ care. There was a time when the partner (often a cisgender man)
of the birthing parent (often a woman) was not allowed to be present during the
birth. Care providers realized that their approach didn’t respect the family unit
as a whole. However, shifting to use couple language for everything pregnancy
and birth related wasn’t quite right, either. The partner’s body does not give
birth, nor does the body of the doctor or midwife. The birthing parent gives
birth, and the birthing parent was
virtually always perceived as female, although as explained above, trans, genderqueer,
and intersex people have been giving birth for as long as anyone.
I propose that organizations trying to
grapple with respecting the feminist legacy of midwifery care while using
inclusive language should be generous with their ink. Use more words!
From the MANA core competency: “The biological wisdom to give
birth is innate, it has been held throughout time, and is experienced across
cultures by all pregnant people.”
The problem above: the word “woman” has
literally been erased from the sentence.
The biological wisdom to give birth is innate, it has been held
throughout time, and is experienced across cultures by all pregnant women and all pregnant people.
Is it wordy? Yes. Is
it inclusive? YES! Is it respectful of the struggles of women against
patriarchy? I think so. There could even be an explanatory note if desired!
The response group at birthforeverybody.org wrote that, “It stands to reason
that women identify as people, therefore women are not excluded by the use of
the word “person” to refer to them. However, there are pregnant people who do
not identify as “women” and feel excluded or misidentified by the use of the
word “women” in reference to them. Therefore, use of the word “people” is
inclusionary, while use of the word “women” is exclusionary.”
The above statement is logically
correct, yet to me it is eerily reminiscent of the way some are promoting the
hashtag #alllivesmatter in response to #blacklivesmatter. Yes, it is true that
all lives matter, but we are focusing on black lives right now because black
people are facing racism and violence every day.
Women and people perceived as women
have faced and continue to face obstetrical violence in the context of a
patriarchal society. We do not need to erase the word “woman” from models of
care or core competency documents, but we should add more words to include
If there are people who want to be
referred to as women in the context of birth, such self-identification needs to
be respected. I believe those who wrote the Open Letter feel that they as women
are made invisible by the exclusive use of the words “pregnant individuals.” They
fear a future where they will not be allowed to write or speak about women in
their own practices. For some, becoming pregnant and giving birth is a crucial
aspect of their womanhood, not their
personhood. Queer folks have done well to add more letters to our “alphabet
soup” LGBTTQIA acronym. We can all handle a few more letters.
The Open Letter to MANA contains many
factual errors and offensive statements regarding trans and genderqueer people.
I see there is much work to be done. I want to see two communities that I love,
the radical birth world of traditional midwives and womyn, and the LGBTTQIA
birth workers move forward together. I will always love and respect Ina May
Gaskin’s work. I hope I will meet her again one day and be able to continue