I Don’t Have Language With Which To Celebrate Women’s Pregnancies Without Undermining My Pro-Choice Beliefs

When I hear someone very early in pregnancy refer to "the child growing inside of me," or similar, a red flag goes off in my head about the way we discuss women's bodies, pregnancies, and babies.
Publish date:
September 12, 2013

There are a lot of things I complain about as I get solidly into my late twenties. Concerned looks from relatives that think I should be married at this haggard old 28. Feeling pretty sure that unless I do something spectacular and do it fast, I'm never ending up on one of those cool "30 Under 30" lists. Aging out of Leonardo DiCaprio's band range. The list goes on.

But one of my favorite things about being in my late twenties is that my friends are having babies and they're doing it on purpose. In your late teens and early twenties, conversations about getting pregnant mostly went like this:

Friend: I'm pregnant.

Me: Oh shit, I'm so sorry. What are you going to do? Can I help with anything?

Nowadays, these conversations go more like this:

Friend: We're pregnant!

Me: Oh my God! Congratulations, will you name it Alana regardless of sex?

I am sincerely happy for my friends that are starting families and can't wait to see the kind of parents they become and to hang out with their teeny tinies. I love watching their joy as they anticipate the arrival of an impossible, earth-shattering kind of love that they've never felt before.

I am not an especially sentimental person, but I cry in birth videos so this whole friends-having-babies thing is regularly resulting in a crying-like-I'm-watching-the-funeral-scene-of-Steel-Magnolias kind of way.

But the issue I've come across recently is what to call what a pregnant woman is carrying without betraying some very strongly held beliefs about reproductive health and rights and what I truly believe makes something a baby or a child. And when I hear someone very early in pregnancy refer to "the child growing inside of me," or similar, a red flag goes off in my head about the way we discuss women's bodies, pregnancies, and babies.

I do want to say in advance that I have never been pregnant and therefore understand that my beliefs about this are limited and subject to change. That said, the issue bothers me because it feels like there is no way to talk about pregnancy without hurting women on either side of the coin, who have either chosen to carry to term or to terminate.

I've worked and volunteered for a variety of reproductive justice groups and there is specific language that we are trained to use and not use when referring to a woman planning to terminate her pregnancy. For example, I cringe every time I hear that abortion should only be allowed when there is "danger to the mother."

The term "mother" defines her by her pregnancy rather than her personhood, it implies that what she carries is a child as the very definition of a mother is a woman with a child. And, chances are, she is seeking an abortion precisely so she does not become a mother, either for the first time or to a new child if she is already a parent, as is the case for 6 in 10 seeking abortions.

I am certainly not going to be the self-righteous killjoy that says, "Girl, what's growing inside you is a non-viable zygote that would be more at home in a Ridley Scott masterpiece than in a nursery." The "It's just a clump of cells" gang has a point but I think that they often make the pro-choice ethic look bad and undermine women for whom the decision to abort was painful and not as morally neutral as many of us in the movement believe it to be.

I hate to admit it, but I have encountered some mean-spiritedness in the reproductive justice movement that makes us seem a bit heartless and does little for our cause.

At the same time, I am not of the popular opinion within the movement that "It's a child when the woman says it's a child" and I have fairly far-left views about later-term abortions as well. I would never share those views with anyone for whom their gestating fetus is indeed, very much a child. But the fact remains, I can't call a fetus a baby or a child and not feel like I'm betraying something I believe in strongly.

It literally exhausts me to think about how one medical condition can be such a tremendous blessing to one person and such a devastating one to another. It makes the language we use around it so sensitive, so difficult, and so potentially hurtful. And I don't want to be in the business of hurting any woman.

So how do I celebrate the women who will become mothers without implying to those that terminate that they destroyed a child? I considered using irreverent terms like "the bean" or "the little critter" so that I don't have to say "baby" but that seems like a cop-out. It also reminds me of those amazing children's books about that goofy character, so aptly named Little Critter. I've thought about referring exclusively to "your pregnancy," but that's so cold and medical.

At a loss, I contacted Katey Zeh, a fellow seminary graduate and reproductive justice activist (the few and the proud!) I asked about "little critter" and the like and expressed my concerns about how we talk about motherhood and pregnancy in and out of the reproductive justice space. She replied, "In my experience, I always frame it around how the woman is feeling during the process. I don't ask about the pregnancy or the baby, but I ask her how she's feeling, what kind of symptoms she has, etc."

I know this must sound ridiculous from a self-identified feminist and reproductive justice advocate, but this answer was a godsend. To concentrate on her instead of her pregnancy is to acknowledge that she is not reduced to her reproductive condition. And in many ways, it reflects the spirit of the pro-choice movement. That what matters above all are the woman’s feelings, her safety, her health, and her heart.

So even though I still might have to pull out some irreverent terms from time to time, I think there’s a great solution in concentrating on the well being of the women instead of the contents of her womb. I also think that after reading this, some of my friends are definitely NOT going to be opting for “Alana” as their baby name.