Taking the gender out of gendered reproductive health.

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Why inclusive language matters.

by deb kozak

Good-bye, gender binary! Say hello to gender neutral language! Wait, what? That sounds kind of complicated.

Not really. Quite simply, gender-free language in health care affirms that reproductive rights are for EVERYONE.

In fact, rather than complicating matters, inclusive language actually makes it less complicated for people to access the sexual and reproductive health services they need. When reproductive health is talked about as only a women’s health issue, it ignores the health care needs of people who don’t identify as women.  

Let’s consider the impacts of gendered health promotion. Are all of the health services typically promoted to women really only for women? Cervical screening and pap tests are helpful to anyone with a cervix, regardless of their gender identity and expression.

Gendered language isn’t just about the semantics of word choices. It can create additional barriers to accessing health care services for many people, especially for marginalized folks such as transgender, Two Spirit, non-binary or genderqueer people.  For example, a trans man who menstruates may become pregnant and subsequently need prenatal or abortion care. Language is just one of the barriers to care people can encounter when health policy, promotion, and practices state that essential reproductive health services are just for pregnant women.

The reality is that none of us can tell someone else’s gender just from their physical appearance or the things they do. The male/female gender binary is a social construction that has never accurately described everyone’s bodies or inner experiences. Removing gender assumptions from health services is an important step that improves both access and effectiveness. Inclusive language, by its very definition, makes room for everyone in health care. It helps us provide people with the heath care they actually need, not the care we presume they might want.

Health care must be relevant to those who seek it. For health care providers, asking gendered questions – “Do you have sex with men? Do you have sex with women?” – doesn’t always capture the details needed to provide medically accurate and appropriate client-centred care. 

In contrast, asking inclusive, open-ended, gender-free questions – “I’d like to hear more about your sexual activities so we can talk about which safer sex supplies might be most helpful for you. Some examples are penis in vagina or mouth on vagina. Please use the words you are most comfortable with.” – allows us to explore potential risks of STI’s and possibilities of pregnancy. In turn, we can offer people the relevant information and the appropriate supplies they need to keep themselves safe.

When advocating for reproductive health care, some people worry that taking gender out of our language erases women’s struggle for access to reproductive services like abortion.

The reality is that inclusive language does the opposite. Rather than erasing people, eliminating gendered terms helps to expand on old ideas and works to improve health outcomes for more people, particularly for some of the most marginalized. 

Language has power. Let’s use that power to promote inclusive reproductive health for everyone!

Sexual and Reproductive Health Awareness Week (SRH Week) is February 10th – 14th, 2020.

deb kozak is a member of the communications team with Women’s Health Clinic and passionate about inclusive and accessible language.

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