Health experts raise concerns about “inclusive” language

Are our efforts to introduce inclusive language backfiring? Could it be having the opposite effect in some cases, potentially ‘dehumanising’ women?

A paper written by 10 authors renowned for their work in the field of women’s health, published on the online science platform Frontiers in Global Women’s Health this week, claims this could indeed be the case. The authors, based in Australia, Asia, Europe, the United Kingdom and the United States, have suggested that highly respected medical journals such as The Lancet, by introducing terms that replace words such as ‘women’, may have “potentially deleterious consequences”.

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In its introduction, the article cites a specific example from an article published in The Lancet last September, which reads as follows:

“Historically, the anatomy and physiology of bodies with vaginas have been neglected.”

The authors argue that replacing the term ‘women’ with “bodies with vaginas”, though being done with good intentions, is an example of “desexing language” with unintended consequences.

Those consequences, argue the authors, include decreasing overall inclusivity; dehumanising; including people who should be excluded; and being imprecise, inaccurate or misleading.

The authors provide a table that lists some of the “sexed terms” and their replacement “desexed terms”. One example is the sexed term ‘breastfeeding’, which has been replaced at times by such desexed terms as body feeding, chestfeeding, feeding from the body, human milk feeding, and lactating.

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This example, explain the authors, highlights the inaccuracies that the attempted use of inclusive language can introduce. “The word ‘breast’ is a sex-neutral term which refers to the mammary glands of males and females. Referring to ‘chests’ rather than ‘breasts’ is medically inaccurate. The ‘chest’ in medical terminology refers to the ribcage and everything within it and does not include mammary tissue. Chest pain may signify a serious heart or lung condition, whereas breast pain may signify a breast condition such as mastitis.”

Critical to getting the language right, say the others, is understanding the difference between the terms sex, gender and gender identity. “Sex (a reproductive category), gender (a societal role), and gender identity (an inner sense of self) are not synonymous.”

Although stating that “broadly there are risks to desexing language when describing female reproduction”, the authors acknowledge that “we should address individuals as they wish”.

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The article singles out the word ‘mother’ in particular. “There is a word for mother in every language”, say the authors. “It is commonly the first word said by children and is perhaps the oldest word ever spoken.”

Replacement words for ‘mother’ identified by the authors include birthers, birthing parents, caregivers, gestational parents, postnatal people and postpartum individuals.

“These language changes”, say the authors, “have the potential, through linguistic processes, to undermine recognition of what mothers mean to all infants.”

The opinion piece concludes with a recommendation that, when considering language regarding pregnancy, birth, lactation, breastfeeding, and newborn care, a number of questions should be considered. These include: How can I be clear? How can I include the people who should be included and exclude the people who should be excluded? How can I avoid dehumanising language? How does language usage support or undermine the rights of women and children?

“The implications [of using desexing language] need to be openly discussed and thoughtfully considered.”

Are you confused by evolving gender and sex terminology? Not sure what to say at times? Why not share your experience in the comments section below?

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Andrew Gigacz
Andrew Gigacz
Andrew has developed knowledge of the retirement landscape, including retirement income and government entitlements, as well as issues affecting older Australians moving into or living in retirement. He's an accomplished writer with a passion for health and human stories.
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