Is the government erasing the language of women and motherhood?

19 February 2021

Carys Moseley comments on a new bill being rushed through by Parliament that changes language on maternity and pregnancy to make it gender neutral.

The government is trying to rush a bill through Parliament that pushes gender-neutral language to absurdity. The Ministerial and other Maternity Allowances Bill is designed to allow female government Ministers and holders of Opposition offices to have maternity leave when they have a baby. The Bill is sponsored by Penny Mordaunt MP, former Minister for Women and Equalities.

What is very strange about the bill is that it carefully avoids describing ministers who become pregnant as ‘women’. The bill uses language like “the person is pregnant”, or “the person has given birth to a child.”

Not the first time

This is not the first time that gender neutral language has been used in primary legislation. The term ‘person who is pregnant’ was first used in section 30(4) of the Pensions Act 2014. Thereafter it appeared mostly in secondary legislation. As this does not require a vote in Parliament, this has meant that the language has passed without public scrutiny. However, all maternity legislation to date has used gender-specific language such as ‘woman’, ‘mother’, ‘she’ and ‘her’.

Gender neutral drafting

Gender neutral drafting of primary legislation was announced as far back as 2007. Drafting guidance is clear that “primary legislation should be drafted in a gender-neutral way, so far as it is practicable to do so” (p7). A footnote to that advice references some recent debates in the House of Lords. In one of these debates in 2013, Lord Gardiner of Kimble said:

“The guidance also recognises that there must be some flexibility and that there will be some Acts where only gender-specific drafting can be usefully applied. In a case where a person has to be of a particular gender—male or female—gender-neutral drafting does not require drafters to avoid referring to the gender. I think your Lordships would agree that that would be the case for legislation about maternity.”

Therefore gender neutral drafting does not require that pregnant women be described as pregnant persons.

Equality Act recognises that mothers are women

The Equality Act 2010 was drafted after gender neutral drafting was introduced. It describes the “protected characteristic of pregnancy and maternity.” There is no attempt to avoid referencing the gender of the mother. For example:

A person (A) discriminates against a woman if, in the protected period in relation to a pregnancy of hers, A treats her unfavourably —

(a)because of the pregnancy, or

(b)because of illness suffered by her as a result of it.

In the new bill, reference to the pregnant woman as “her” is studiously avoided. Instead, in the explanatory notes we have, for example:

“The Minister on Leave would be able to access papers they were able to access in their previous role.”

Some MPs proposed and amendment to the bill which would “leave out ‘person’ and insert ‘woman’.” Sir Edward Leigh intervened in the debate to ask:

“Can Her Majesty’s Government confirm that only a biological woman can have a baby? Will the Minister therefore explain to me why the Bill refers to ‘a person’ and not to ‘a woman’? If we are going to adopt extreme gender ideology, why are the Government doing it by stealth and why can we not have a transparent debate on the matter? This insults the dignity of many women.”

Language matters

The problem with ‘pregnant persons’ is that it is a denial of reality. Only women can become pregnant and give birth. Perhaps some government ministers have not yet realised this basic scientific fact? Carefully avoiding saying that mothers must be female is enshrining into law the fictitious idea that motherhood is gender neutral.

This bill sets a dangerous precedent for government departments to get rid of the terms ‘woman’ and ‘mother’ in maternity legislation. This undermines public confidence in the government’s stated commitment not to reform the Gender Recognition Act. Most people are opposed to making changing gender easier. A bill being rushed through Parliament is not the place to make wholesale changes to parliamentary language on sex and gender. These are important and controversial issues being debated in society and there is no need at all to move away from the normal terms, ‘woman’ and ‘mother’.

Stella Creasey refuses to back gender-specific language

Stella Creasy MP threatened to take the government to court over not including all MPs in the bill’s maternity cover plans. However, when interviewed on the BBC about the bill, she did not say clearly that only women can be mothers. This, in itself, is rather telling.

Creasy appears to be prioritising a highly individualistic notion of human rights above the moral duty to tell the truth. As she is also a staunch abortion rights advocate, we can expect that this gender-neutral language will increasingly be used by abortion clinics as well. No doubt this will bring home the sheer inhumanity involved in extreme gender-neutral language. For it denies the uniqueness of mothers in a move parallel to how the abortion rights movement denies the uniqueness and value of unborn children.

The risk posed by the bill

There are serious questions here about the workings of government lawyers, respect for the consultation process and democratic decision-making. As there are no female-to-male transgender people in the Cabinet, the bill wording was not introduced to cater for one person’s activism. What is going on is a deliberate attempt to change the culture of government so that it is framed by gender ideology.

A culture of deceit and disinformation will result from this bill’s enactment. Unless the wording is amended by the Lords next Monday 22 February, the bill will give the green light for gender ideology elsewhere. Already some NHS trusts are using ‘pregnant people’ rather than ‘pregnant women’ on their websites. Recent history shows that this will lead to disputes where honest, truthful and conscientious employees will be penalised for resisting this ideological move.

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