Women or ‘Pregnant People’?
NEWS ANALYSIS: As gender theory and the abortion-rights movement offer conflicting messages on what it means to be a woman, Catholic theologians see a new opportunity to teach the truth about sexual differences.
WASHINGTON — A recent Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on abortion access and the law featured the tortured state of America’s debate on what defines a woman.
In the process, the ensuing verbal fireworks also marked the collision between a women’s movement that sees legal abortion as key to sexual equality and the transgender-rights movement that believes biological sex is a social construct.
During the July 13 Senate hearing, Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., asked University of California at Berkeley law professor Khiara Bridges whether a phrase she had used, “a person with the capacity for pregnancy,” referred to “women.”
Bridges agreed that “[m]any women, cis women, have the capacity for pregnancy,” but “trans men” and “nonbinary people” can conceive a child, as well.
Hawley then asked whether abortion was “really a women’s-rights issue.”
Bridges said it was possible to recognize that abortion access “impacts women while also recognizing that it impacts other groups.” Bridges then pivoted to accuse the GOP senator of engaging in a “transphobic” line of questioning that “opens up trans people to violence by not recognizing them.” She repeated that judgment after Hawley stated his belief that men could not get pregnant in an exchange that went viral and provoked an explosive response on social media.
Once confined to graduate-school seminars, gender theory — the view that biological sex must be brought into line with a person’s separate, inner feelings of being a man or woman — has moved to the forefront of American public discourse, as this congressional exchange demonstrated.
Gender theory’s surge to political prominence has divided the political loyalties of progressive-minded abortion-rights advocates. Many do not want to take the focus off of what they see as the particular vulnerabilities women face in a post-Roe world, while others insist that the abortion-rights push must be inclusive of biological women who identify as trans or nonbinary.
But the split within the abortion-rights movement is only part of the story. The fast-moving linguistic and social revolution advanced by transgender-rights activists is reshaping how mainstream America understands human identity and sexuality, what children are taught, and even how the American Cancer Society addresses specific groups at risk.
And while Catholic theologians have identified the dangers posed by this movement, and critique specific practices associated with it, they also see this moment as a new opportunity to represent a Christian anthropology of what it means to be a man or a woman.
The pointed exchange between Hawley and Bridges, and the powerful reaction it provoked, revealed that many Americans have strong views about the introduction of gender-neutral language and what it represents.
At a minimum, lawmakers, civil-rights leaders and public-health officials are increasingly likely to employ terms like “pregnant people” and “individuals with a cervix” in lieu of “women,” while public-health sites may refer to breastfeeding as “chestfeeding.”
This linguistic revolution is based on the belief that biologically female persons who do not identify as women, but can still conceive and give birth to a child, must be recognized and affirmed. Yet, aside from occasional tweets scored by author J.K. Rowling, who has ridiculed the descriptor “people who menstruate,” most women have not publicly registered their reaction to phrases that reduce their feminine identity to a list of body parts or functions.
That could change, as the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2022 decision overturning Roe v. Wade leads young women, in particular, to consider the reality of biological sex with fresh eyes, mindful of the fact they bear greater consequences in conceiving a child than do their male peers.
Indeed, this fact is not disputed by Democratic lawmakers and media outlets that constantly claim that without national legalized abortion rights, women will face fresh burdens on their equality and basic survival. Yet the disconnect between this drumbeat of alarming rhetoric directed at women, and the transformative vision of gender fluidity that minimizes women’s unique biological capacities, exemplified by the use of such language as “chestfeeding,” will be hard to reconcile in the post-Roe landscape.
“The contradictory movements on behalf of transgender rights and abortion rights” reveal a crisis in our understanding of “what it means to be human,” and poses special problems for women, said John Finley, the editor of Sexual Identity: The Harmony of Philosophy, Science, and Revelation, a philosopher and member of the Aquinas Institute at Blackfriars Hall, University of Oxford.
The whole person of a woman is characterized by “relationality,” he told the Register.
But instead of celebrating a woman’s special role and responsibility as mother and cultural formator in the home and society, the rhetoric of both gender theory and abortion-rights activism reduces her to “mere pieces: a ‘birthing person,’ ‘a person with a vagina,’ ‘a victim,’ ‘a carrier.’”
This practice, Finley warned, has also provoked a second “crisis in human reason.”
“By eliminating the identity of woman and of child, we lose our ability to name human realities themselves,” he added. “As a society we seek to defend ‘woman’s rights,’ but that term becomes incoherent since in the face of any given issue we may be talking about this or that ‘piece’ of what it means to be a woman, without regard for the whole.”
This incoherent state of political discourse influenced by gender theory was recently summed up in a New York Times headline, “A Vanishing Word in Abortion Debate: ‘Women.’”
“Whoever is in charge of the language is in charge of the culture,” Deborah Savage, a professor of theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville, told the Register. “People who are manipulating language to fit a nonreality are perpetrating a myth on the rest of us, yet J.K. Rowling is not the only one to be canceled on Twitter.”
Women’s true “dignity is found in the fact that she has a nature, and her task is to fulfill it, to become who she is meant to be,” said Savage, pointing to the seminal teachings of Pope St. John Paul II, who issued the 1995 “Letter to Women” and 1988 apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem (The Dignity and Vocation of Women), which celebrates the “feminine genius” of women and offers a vision of male-female relationships based on complementarity, equality and communion.
Savage and Finley are among a growing cohort of Catholic academics and writers who have studied gender theory, mindful of the fact that although the Church has considerable experience with countering abortion-rights talking points, the emergence of gender ideology has ambushed Catholic shepherds as well as the public.
These Catholic analysts warn that the linguistic revolution that has accompanied the rise of gender theory can confuse the young, leading some to dismiss the immutable reality of biological sex, with an increasing number reporting a mismatch between their sex and feelings about being male or female.
“The more I have studied ‘gender-identity theory’… the clearer it becomes that the scaffolding of this framework is linguistic,” said Abigail Favale, a professor at the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame and the author of the newly released book The Genesis of Gender: A Christian Theory, in a recent interview with The Pillar.
“It requires us to use words in a way that conflicts with material reality. That is why there is so much emphasis on linguistic conformity; the plausibility of gender-identity theory depends upon our linguistic participation. And because social affirmation can be a gateway to invasive, irreversible medicalization, the stakes are high, especially when we’re talking about young people,” said Favale.
U.S. schools, universities, social-media networks and promoters of identity politics all strongly encourage young Americans to explore and reassess their sexual identity, leading an estimated 20% of Gen Z Americans to identify as “LGBTQ.” And a particularly troubling development is the recent surge of teenage girls experiencing “rapid-onset gender dysphoria,” a phenomenon that experts are now studying.
Christina Barba Whalen, founder and president of The Culture Project, which offers chastity education to students from middle school through college, has witnessed the impact of gender theory and abortion-rights messaging on girls and teens.
“We are seeing a generation of young women who are confused about what it means to be a woman” and view motherhood as “hard,” even unappealing, Whalen told the Register.
“In the past, a mother might have talked to her daughter about what it means to get your period — you are training to one day be a mother, and that prospect is a gift, a blessing. Now, the culture is separating femininity from procreation. And even if you have a uterus, you can be trans.”
Further, the politicization of issues related to sexuality, and the resulting self-censorship that has followed, make it especially hard for girls to engage in open discussions about such matters. Whalen said that those who yearn to be a wife and mother generally keep it to themselves.
“There is so much pressure to avoid judgments” that can be interpreted as “bigotry,” she said, adding as an example, “If you don’t support gay marriage, you hate gay people.”
Cutting Through the Politics
A 2019 document issued by the Congregation for Catholic Education, “Male and Female He Created Them,” was designed to help Catholic leaders and educators cut through the politics and address the threat posed by gender theory and practices associated with it.
The document expressed the Church’s closeness to every child of God, including those struggling with their sexuality, and Pope Francis’ acknowledgement of culturally influenced models of femininity and masculinity. But it rejected ideologies that separate gender from bodily sex and reject the truth of sexual complementarity.
“The generic concept of ‘non-discrimination’ often hides an ideology that denies the difference as well as natural reciprocity that exists between men and women,” the document stated.
But as the goalposts keep shifting — the Vatican document noted the “fluid, flexible ... nomadic” values of queer theory — so Church leaders and ordinary Catholics must constantly play catch-up.
And that problem leaves many Catholics, especially women, unsure of what’s at stake when the public expression of phrases like “individuals with a cervix” no longer raises eyebrows.
Asked why such terms disturb many women, Angela Franks, a professor of theology at St. John’s Seminary in Boston, explained that they “linguistically erase women.”
This gender-neutral language points to a larger goal: the creation of a “sexless society in which the natural restrictions that sex places on each of the sexes are no longer at play, and the unencumbered person can float in whatever direction they want.”
And yet women “are more affected by the nature of sexual difference” than men, Franks noted. “They can’t simply inseminate someone and walk away,” she added. “They get pregnant; they breastfeed.”
These facts of life suggest that the public will continue to come across phrases like “birthing people,” while terms that serve as placeholders for “men” will remain scarce.
Franks further observed that the reductive treatment of women’s vocation as mothers betrays a “certain degree of latent misogyny, particularly in a technological age that seeks to transcend the body’s natural limits.”
Women’s bodies are made to nurture unborn human life, she said, and that challenges the postmodern value of radical individual autonomy in which the person is dependent on no one and should be free to impose his or her will on creation.
Franks explained that the “tech mindset regarding human reproduction” is oriented to control the process, including the detection of birth defects.
This approach conflicts with the “mysterious process” of natural procreation “that is a matter of receptivity, not active making.”
And she noted that radical feminists have also expressed discomfort with a process that did not fall under the full control of women — as it might be in a lab.
Franks and other experts have traced the many ways the feminist and abortion-rights movements have worked to overcome women’s unique vulnerabilities, as well as the culture’s response to the mixed messages on female identity and power.
Some experts have studied the recent crop of Hollywood movies that depict female superheroes who physically defeat muscular men. Franks concluded that many Americans welcome these celluloid icons who foster the belief that “technology has actually reduced or removed women’s physical vulnerability.”
This “myth” provides further context for the heated debate over government regulations that require schools to allow biological males who identify as female to use bathrooms that align with their gender identity but also set up procedures for universities to investigate claims of sexual assault in which the accused is generally male and the “student victim” is female.
For some women, the end of Roe could be a kind of reckoning, dispelling the dream of female invulnerability, but also creating new opportunities for Catholic evangelization and pastoral engagement.
Notre Dame’s Favale told the Register that she hopes this unprecedented moment in U.S. politics and culture will “showcase the tension and incoherence between pro-choice rhetoric, which affirms a connection between being a woman and particularly female qualities and characteristics, and gender-identity theory, which denies that connection.”
At the same time, she sees a new chance for the Church to “provide a more compelling understanding of what it means to be a woman, one that recognizes the reality of bodily differences between males and females that very much affect women’s lives.”