Abortion Talk: Five Reasons to Ditch “Women’s Health” and Switch to “Reproductive Health”

November 6th, 2019     by Katherine Gladhart-Hayes     Comments

Image from “The Gender Spectrum Collection: Stock Photos Beyond the Binary” by Broadly.

Reproductive rights and healthcare — and abortion in particular — have been making international news lately. In the U.S., abortion bans were (unsuccessfully, as of October 29) introduced in several states including Alabama, Georgia, Ohio, and Missouri. The bans range from total bans to “heartbeat laws,” meaning abortions would have been banned at only six to eight weeks into the pregnancy. In Canada, Ontario MPP Sam Oosterhoff has been saying he wants to see an end to abortion, and Conservative party leader Andrew Scheer has consistently opposed abortion rights in the past — a big concern considering his leadership position. In Europe, Brexit threatens abortion access for non-E.U. citizens who now struggle to obtain visas into the U.K., while doctors and patients can face life sentences for abortion in Northern Ireland. Abortion debates continue in Ireland, a year since the abortion ban was overturned, and in Argentina, where activists continue to advocate for legal abortion.

While abortion rights are being fiercely debated around the world, it’s important to think about the language we’re using in these conversations. Here’s five reasons to stop talking about abortion as “women’s health” and instead call it what it is: “reproductive health.”

1) It’s Trans Exclusionary

For starters, the language of “women’s health” excludes trans and non-binary individuals who may become pregnant and need reproductive healthcare, including abortion. It also doesn’t recognize that not all women can become pregnant, and therefore won’t need to access abortion services. While it’s important to understand that the drive to control cis women’s bodies is misogynist and patriarchal, it’s essential to recognize the full range of people impacted by these power structures if we ever want to dismantle them.

2) It’s Sexist

Even in relationships between cis women and men, using the language of “women’s health” to describe abortion presents problems; it puts the burden of avoiding pregnancy or dealing with an unplanned, unsafe, or unhealthy pregnancy on the woman in the relationship, while the man is not held responsible for any social, financial, or emotional consequences of pregnancy. This is part of a system to control women, both by forcing them into caregiver roles and by saddling them with the social and financial consequences of an unplanned pregnancy.

3) It Ignores Other Reproductive Care Options

Calling reproductive health “women’s health” rules out other viable contraceptive options, like vasectomies. Because of cisnormativity and transphobia, vasectomies are not generally included under “women’s health.” In ordinary conversations about reproductive healthcare and values, vasectomy is often just a punchline on a snarky bumper sticker: “Don’t like abortion? Have a vasectomy.” Rather than seriously addressing contraceptive options for people with penises, this type of language reinforces the notion that abortion restrictions are exclusively about men controlling women, without considering the impact on trans and non-binary people. Further, if contraceptives are seen as exclusively a “women’s health” issue, “male” contraceptives can be considered unnecessary, or unnecessarily risky — even if comparable side effects are acceptable in “female” hormonal birth control. From this perspective, “male” contraceptives are set apart from reproductive health and given the benefit of greater scrutiny.

4) It Ignores Women’s Other Health Concerns

In addition to upholding the gender binary and gender roles, the language of “women’s health” is vague. All women need (and may or may not be able to access) a range of healthcare in their lifetimes. This healthcare is not limited to contraceptives, abortion, mammograms, and pregnancy-related care; women also see general practitioners, eye doctors, dentists, physical and occupational therapists, cardiologists, neurologists, palliative care doctors, pain specialists, and all other types of healthcare providers. The term “women’s health” is vague as it fails to specify the type of healthcare under discussion.

Calling reproductive healthcare “women’s health” excludes women from other important discussions about healthcare. This is an issue with a huge impact, as studies for conditions like heart disease focus on the symptoms, needs, and experiences of cisgender men and neglect all others. For example, the heart attack symptoms cis women commonly experience are described as “non-traditional” because heart disease studies focus on cis men. This means women’s symptoms are not recognized and, therefore, not taken seriously. For another example, women with chronic pain and illness are frequently dismissed by healthcare providers and told that their physical health problems are imaginary or should be treated by a mental health specialist. When we use the term “women’s health” to refer to only reproductive healthcare needs, we are complicit in a system that sees the bodies of cisgender men as the norm, and sees no need to address the healthcare concerns of anyone else.

It is essential that we recognize that these issues are worse for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities: BIPOC women experience delayed diagnosis and disrespect from medical providers at higher rates than white women. In the U.S., the maternal mortality rate for Black women is much higher than for white women. Racism and white supremacy even played a role in the history of abortion bans. In the 1840s, abortion bans in the U.S. were driven by the fear of a declining birth rate among the white, upper-middle-class, compared to a relatively high birth rate among people of colour who did not have the same access to abortion. The goal was to prevent white, upper class women from having abortions to ensure a whiter population. When we use the term “women’s health,” we don’t consider these further intersections of oppression that are so crucial to understanding restrictions on reproductive rights.

5) It Promotes Shame About Abortion

Finally, the language of “women’s health” is euphemistic and enforces stigma around the topic of abortion. When we don’t name what we mean, it implies we are ashamed of it. Have you ever gone to the drug store to buy menstrual products, only to find them in an aisle euphemistically labelled “feminine hygiene products,” “feminine paper,” or “feminine essentials?” It’s because bodies that are viewed as female are considered taboo, which implies they are shameful. Similarly, using the euphemism of “women’s health” when we really mean “abortion” or “contraceptives” implies a certain level of shame with both the procedures it describes (ie. abortion and contraception) and the bodies that need those procedures.

It’s time that we ditch the term “women’s health” and switch to the term “reproductive health” to talk about contraceptives and abortion. These are not healthcare needs unique to women or shared by all women, and they are far from the only healthcare women access in their lives. The term “reproductive healthcare” is truer to the medical practices it describes and better recognizes the complex reproductive needs of all individuals, regardless of sex and gender.

About the Author: Originally from Oregon, Katherine is a university student studying the history of science, neuroscience, and bioethics. In her free time she loves to knit, go outside, and spend time with her family.

Tags: abortion, body politics, reproductive health, reproductive justice

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