Harvard refers to women as 'birthing people': Not all who give birth identify as ‘women’ or ‘girls'

Established in 1636, Harvard, located in Cambridge and Boston, Massachusetts, is the oldest institution of higher education in the United States.
Established in 1636, Harvard, located in Cambridge and Boston, Massachusetts, is the oldest institution of higher education in the United States. | Courtesy of Harvard University

In a tweet promoting one of its panel discussions, Harvard Medical School referred to women as “birthing people” to be more inclusive of those who identify as nonbinary or transgender. 

In a Nov. 8 tweet, Harvard Medical School’s Postgraduate and Continuing Education proclaimed that “Globally, ethnic minority pregnant and birthing people suffer worse outcomes and experiences during and after pregnancy and childbirth” as it promoted a panel discussion about “Maternal Justice.”

The use of the term “birthing people” to describe women resulted in negative reactions from many commenters.
“During slavery black women were referred to as breeders. This experiment to dehumanize women & to deconstruct us into nothing more than holes & body parts for men to use, started with black women. This is regressive and not progressive. Stop perpetuating this nonsense!” one Twitter user wrote.

“Reducing us to ‘birthing people’ is vile but also shows, glaringly, why women are underserved in medicine. Your contempt for us couldn’t be more apparent. We are women, and we will not be swept aside,” said another.

Another Twitter user who describes herself as a feminist responded to the tweet by describing it as “Foul foul foul. Say the word WOMEN!! WOMEN!! This is dehumanizing and sickening.”

In another post in its Twitter thread highlighting the panel, which came in response to the backlash, Harvard acknowledged that “the webinar panelists used the term ‘birthing person’ to include those who identify as non-binary or transgender because not all who give birth identify as ‘women’ or ‘girls.’”

“We understand the reactions to this terminology and in no way meant for it to erase or dehumanize women,” the university said.

Harvard’s embrace of “inclusive” terminology is not a new phenomenon. Many conservatives, including YouTube personality Sydney Watson, have reacted to the push for inclusive gender terminology with disgust for quite a long time.

Earlier this year, Watson posted Motherboard's list of “Suggested (Inclusive) sexual health language” on her Instagram page. 

The list suggests that the phrase “persons who menstruate” be used instead of “female/women,” “persons who produce sperm” instead of “male/men,” “pregnant persons” instead of “pregnant women,” “chest-feeding” instead of “breastfeeding” and “birthing persons” instead of “mother.” Some of those phrases have also become more widespread and have even drawn the ire of self-proclaimed feminists.

Sarcastically responding to an op-ed talking about “people who menstruate,” Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling tweeted: “I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?” Rowling received intense backlash for the tweet, with critics calling her “transphobic.”

When Healthline published an article with the term ‘vulva owners’ in the headline, Watson responded by saying, “Actually, we prefer to be called women.”

“Isn’t it amazing that women’s rights have progressed SO far that we’re no longer even referred to as ‘women,’ or even ‘females?’ So glad I’m now characterized as a ‘birthing person’ and a ‘vulva owner,’” Watson said in a subsequent tweet.

In a lengthy essay released shortly after she expressed disapproval of the phrase “people who menstruate,” Rowling seemed to agree that the inclusive language is actually dehumanizing to women:

“The ‘inclusive’ language that calls female people ‘menstruators’ and ‘people with vulvas’ strikes many women as dehumanizing and demeaning. I understand why trans activists consider this language to be appropriate and kind, but for those of us who’ve had degrading slurs spat at us by men, it’s not neutral, it’s hostile and alienating.”

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