Has the government banned the term 'pregnant woman'?

Published: 20th Nov 2017

“Foreign Office blasted for trying to ban Brits from saying ‘pregnant woman’ — as it may offend transgender parents”

The Sun, 22 October 2017

The term ‘pregnant woman’ is not being banned by the government. It’s not even being discouraged.

The government, the law, and even the Equality and Human Rights Commission routinely talk about pregnant women.

Downing Street went out of its way to emphasise that “of course pregnant women is an acceptable term” after newspapers claimed it wasn’t.

So how did we end up with headlines claiming that the term was being banned?

This seems to have two roots. The first was some guidelines the British Medical Association gave to its staff on inclusive language in 2016. The second, the government side of all this, is a single comment the Foreign Office made about some international treaty language in 2017.

What has the Foreign Office said about pregnant people?

The Foreign Office has suggested that the term “pregnant woman” might not be legally precise enough in a single UN Human Rights Committee comment about interpreting the right to life in one particular treaty.

The UN has been revising its interpretation of the “right to life” in Article 6 of its International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

This process, called General Comments, is legally significant. Human Rights are quite general, and so occasionally the UN invites experts to draft Comments which update and clarify their interpretation in a modern context.

Although the revisions are not legally binding, they are considered highly authoritative as international law says that continuous contextual interpretation of treaties is necessary.

The drafted General Comments run to 22 pages. One paragraph was about how, although states have the right to set their own abortion laws, these laws “must not result in violation of the right to life of a pregnant woman”. So abortion should never be denied if a pregnant woman’s life is at stake.

Once these Comments are drafted, states are invited to provide their own comments on the draft. The UK submitted six pages of comments on 6 October 2017.

One of these comments related to the abortion point. While the UK generally approved, it noted that “in using the term “pregnant woman” the Committee may be inadvertently restricting the application of this paragraph to exclude transgender people who have given birth”.

There have, the UK noted, been two recent cases of transgender people giving birth in the UK, and so its comment aims to ensure they are also covered by the UN Covenant.

A Foreign Office spokesperson commented: “We strongly support the right to life of pregnant women, and we have requested that the Human Rights Committee does not exclude pregnant transgender people from that right to life.”

The Times reported that “The government has said the term “pregnant woman” should not be used in a UN treaty”.

This is not strictly true – the government’s suggestion aimed to add legal clarity in one specific General Comment on a UN treaty, which will not appear in the main treaty itself. It does not affect the use of “pregnant woman” in any other part of the treaty, or dictate when the term can be used in general.

It was also reported that the Foreign Office suggested it should be replaced with the term “pregnant people”, according to the Sun, the Telegraph, and the Spectator.

The Foreign Office told us it has never used the term “pregnant people”.

What has the British Medical Association said about pregnant people?

The British Medical Association is a trade union for doctors and medical students. It’s not a regulator and it doesn’t have the power to tell doctors what standards they must live up to.

The 2006 guidance on non-discriminatory language that the BMA promotes to doctors makes no mention of pregnancy.

In 2016, the BMA produced guidelines for its staff on “effective communication” by using “inclusive language in the workplace”.

Those guidelines say: “A large majority of people that have been pregnant or have given birth identify as women. We can include intersex men and transmen who may get pregnant by saying ‘pregnant people’ instead of ‘expectant mothers’.”

Intersex refers to people whose biological attributes do not match what’s commonly thought of as male or female. Transmen means people who were identified as female at birth but who identify as male.

Despite inaccurate reports in the Mirror, the Mail, and The Sun of doctors being banned from or warned against talking about expectant mothers, these guidelines were not written for doctors and they are not binding on anyone unless they happen to work for the BMA.

What’s better ‘pregnant women’ or ‘pregnant people’?

It’s up to you what language you choose but even among activist organisations that support transgender people we haven’t found anyone arguing for a ban on talking about ‘pregnant women’.

TransMediaWatch told us –

“We would hope that medical professionals and others working directly with individuals who are pregnant would respect their gender identity and call them pregnant women, pregnant men or pregnant people as appropriate. It’s really just a matter of respect and good manners.

“It’s ludicrous to suggest, as some newspapers have, that anybody wants to ban the term ‘pregnant women’. The vast majority of people who become pregnant are women — nobody is disputing that. The needs of women and the needs of trans men and non-binary people are not at odds, and most people can see that.”

Bernard Reed, Trustee of the Gender Identity Research & Education Society, told us that the most important thing is to “listen” to the trans community. If they find the term “pregnant woman” offensive, he says we should consider changing it.


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