How we talk about abortion matters

Image of reproductive rights protesters

As feminist communications professionals, it’s our job to lead the way on inclusive and sensitive language. Wallis Grant, who works on external communication and advocacy at Global Office Consulting and sits on the Executive Committee of Abortion Rights UK, highlights why the words we use in talking about reproductive health and rights matter and some tips for instilling this in your everyday writing.

By Wallis Grant

Moves to curtail abortion access in the US are once again rearing their ugly heads as Texas brought in legislation that effectively banned abortion after six weeks and allows private citizens to sue anyone involved in procuring an abortion. These sentiments are not new and not isolated to the US; across the world, abortion rights continue to be challenged or kept in place by conservative agendas who mask their gender discrimination under the veil of ‘pro-life’ values.

The way we talk about abortion, however, has evolved over time and this is where we as progressive communications professionals can use our expertise to challenge narratives that pander to regressive forces. Below are two main areas where I’ve shifted the language I use in my everyday work to help support and advance abortion access for all.

"Abortion rights continue to be challenged or kept in place by conservative agendas who mask their gender discrimination under the veil of ‘pro-life’ values."

Who has abortions?

It is true that the majority of those who seek abortions are women. However, some trans men and non-binary people will access abortion as well so any communications materials on abortion must acknowledge this group as well. Simple, right?

However, in our world where the rights of trans people continue to be violated, the acknowledgement that this health procedure is accessed by people other than women has become another pawn in trans-exclusionary feminists’ game to pit trans rights and women’s rights as incompatible. This has been exemplified by BPAS’ announcement last week which claimed there was pressure to drop the term ‘women’ from their services, when in fact, no one is advocating for taking out women but simply adding categories to allow everyone to feel included.
Most organisations choose to be fluid in how they approach inclusive language around abortion. ‘Women and people’ is definitely a mouthful but then any of us who have worked in think tanks have had worse jargon to try and fit into a 280 character tweet (my personal favourite: ‘democratising the knowledge economy’). In very practical terms, I tend to include ‘women and people’ at the beginning of my piece, switch between ‘women’ and ‘people’ throughout, and then end by acknowledging ‘women, trans men and non-binary people’ to cement who I’m talking about. This allows the reader to acknowledge that abortion rights are an issue for women, and one that they have been historically persecuted for, but that there are others who face the same problems of accessing abortion who happen to not identify as women.
Why is it important? If a health service’s language is inclusive, people of all gender identities will feel more comfortable seeking safe and professional help and be more likely to return for other reproductive health matters. And the process for trans men or non-binary people to access healthcare in general is already difficult, given the mandate to see ID that may not match their gender presentation and misconceptions around binary identities that spill into how healthcare is given. I, like many others, only want someone seeking an abortion to feel care and compassion when they do so. Therefore, we should be trying to take away as many barriers as possible and moving to gender-inclusive language is one way to do this.

The Freudian mother slip

The second term to watch out for is the use of the word ‘mother’ when talking about people seeking abortions. Laura Hurley from Safe Abortion Action Fund has already written a great blog on this topic but to summarise: the word mother is not a neutral term to use when describing someone seeking abortions. The term not only excludes those who are not women, but it implies that a pregnant woman is already a mother when in reality, they may never be or never want to be.

Furthermore, as Laura highlights, it plays into the hands of anti-choice groups who frame their arguments around ‘life at the point of conception’ and push women/people to become mothers without any choice. The narrative already falls into their favour with what they call themselves – pro-life- so it’s important not to feed further into this.
For any communications people who find themself using mother, I would ask yourself why? Is it that mother allows readers to form some sort of empathy with the person you are describing and therefore you get them on board? Or is it just a bias we all have from seeing this word tossed around for years in the dialogue around abortion? Either way, it’s a process of unlearning in our writing and language choices that not only applies to how we discuss reproductive health, but race issues , international development, the Climate Crisis, etc. And it’s about finding ways to elicit the same emotional response from readers in different ways. Who doesn’t love a challenge?
Language around abortion will continue to change and I’m sure if I come back to this blog in six months, I will most likely contradict myself! But I hope you have found this helpful and know that as communications people, we have at least some power in shifting narratives that in turn, shift hearts and minds on important topics.