“Birthing parent”: what it means and why it’s important
By Alexis Bussel
Image via Sky News Australia
The phrase “birthing parent” was making headlines in July of 2022 after the National Education Association proposed to replace the word “mother” on all legal documents with the new, gender-neutral, term. This proposal was met with extreme media scrutiny from almost all sides of politics, and the proposal was ultimately turned down. However, do we really even know what “birthing parent” means for the future of inclusivity?
What is a birthing parent?
Birthing parent is simply the gender-neutral, inclusive, term that refers to anyone who has/will give birth. This kind of gender-neutral language has become increasingly common in discussions of menstruation, vaginas, pregnancy, and birth. In an effort to accommodate transgender and nonbinary people, the word “women” in these conversations has been replaced with menstruator/menstruating people, people who can get pregnant, and people with vaginas/vulvas/uteruses.
The topic of creating a new term to reference people who have or will give birth has long been a challenge in intersectional feminist circles. Many people have used the term “birthing person”, but it is almost always criticized with comparisons to something from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. For many, “birthing parent”, is the slightly less dystopian option.
Why are gender-neutral reproductive terms even used?
Menstruation and pregnancy can be huge sources of gender dysphoria for non-binary people, transgender men, and anyone who experiences it that doesn’t identify as a cis-woman. Given how inaccessible gender affirming treatment is, many non-binary and transgender people still menstruate. Experiencing a monthly occurrence that is socially connected to one gender, especially one that you don’t identify with, can take a great emotional toll on genderqueer people.
Additionally, not all cis-women menstruate. Whether it’s due to injury, illness, or another cause, it’s not uncommon for a cisgendered woman to be unable to menstruate or get pregnant. Because womanhood is still so subconsciously connected to the ability to become a mother in most societies, and with the idea of the divine feminine circulating social media, it often leads to a feeling of not being a “true” or “real" woman.
Why are some people so mad?
One of the biggest criticisms of “birthing parent” is that it feels dehumanizing. In complete honesty, felt the same at first. It felt like it was a way to further reduce people that have uteruses to their reproductive capacity which would ultimately make it harder to achieve reproductive justice in the U.S. After discussing it with one of my friends who is non-binary, it opened my mind to the importance of the word a little bit more and I realized a couple of things.
Things to keep in mind if you’re skeptical
Sex ≠ gender. Sex is biological and gender is expressive. While both are spectrums (for more on the sexual spectrum, see ‘Sex Redefined’ by Claire Ainsworth), gender is completely fluid and there are no rules as to what you can identify yourself as. It’s important to remember that woman is an identity, not an anatomy. To refer to only “women” when discussing the female reproductive system is to assume that only cisgendered women experience menstruation, pregnancy, etc., which is just incorrect.
“Mother” is not going anywhere. One of the reasons I was so opposed to the idea of a “birthing parent” was because I, a cisgendered woman, imagined how I would feel if I were ever called that. I don’t think I would be upset, but it would definitely feel a little bit objectifying. After thinking about it and discussing it more, I remembered that “mother” is not going away. In the same way that someone else wants to identify as a birthing parent, someone else can still identify as a mother or whatever other term they feel the most comfortable with. Birthing parent’s sole purpose is to not exclude anyone in a general discussion of pregnancy and birth, and is not going to completely remove the word “mother” from everyone’s vocabulary.
Written by writer Alexis Bussell