That’s been a hotly contested topic lately, perhaps surprisingly to some. For many, the concept of a woman may seem so obvious that it needs no definition; to others, the idea of a woman is elusive, and perhaps only definable by individuals identifying as women. Others would have us believe that there is no significant difference between men and women at all; that these distinctions are nothing more than a social construct.
But it is an inescapable reality that, genetically and biologically, females are unique, with unique needs—especially when it comes to their safety and health. We are not just “small men,” and where medicine has treated us as such, it has come with serious consequences. It is therefore good and proper that in the treatment of women, medicine should be concerned with a precise identification of female bodies, even if that body does not present itself as recognizably, “classically” feminine. But in an Orwellian effort to drill down to what defines a female body, without assigning the now-contested moniker of “woman” to those bodies, we see health authorities using terms like “birthing people,” “pregnant people,” “people who menstruate,” and most recently, on the very cover of the storied medical journal The Lancet, “bodies with vaginas.” In this painstaking effort to define female bodies for the sake of medical accuracy, we see an erasure of the word woman—and perhaps the very idea of woman itself.
With the erasure of the word woman, it’s as if we’ve forgotten that women (and men) are more than just bodies—collections of parts performing their various functions: We are persons, with a unique body and spirit inextricably intertwined for the duration of our lives. It’s nothing new, this idea of a separation between the “true self,” and a body that is disdained as little more than an earthly vessel. Yet our modern Gnosticism is an odd inversion of the early form, defining a person as it does by their particular body parts or bodily functions. In a way, it elevates the body over the spirit, using uniquely female or uniquely male bodily functions or anatomical structures to define the whole person. Hence we see the push to label as medically necessary the fabrication of phallic structures for biological females, and the creation of patent cavities within the pelvises of biological males, to give the appearance of penises and vaginas, respectively (among other surgical procedures).
Indeed, with these procedures, we see another strange twist of logic: that is, that women no longer even hold a monopoly over classically female body parts. If biological males can attain “breasts,” “vaginas,” and perhaps, someday, even uteruses via transplantation, what will be left to define women—if we buy into the belief that body parts and functions are the sole defining elements that set women apart from men? And if biological men can acquire facsimiles of these female body parts, and we agree, as a culture, that by definition this makes them women, what incentives will there be to protect the very real vulnerabilities and unique health needs of biological women?
In our rush to be inclusive and sensitive in our language, we see a subtle erasure of the humanity, the very personhood, of women. Of what it means to be born a woman, and to go through life in all its glories and tragedies, as a woman. Of the unique experiences that shape us, and in turn, how we shape the world around us with our uniquely feminine perspective as women. This, in particular, is something Pope Francis implicitly recognized when he said “The feminine genius is needed wherever we make important decisions,” and similarly what the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg recognized when she said “Women belong in all places where decisions are being made.”
Both of these individuals, as different as they are, clearly recognized that what women bring to the table is so much more than can be crassly distilled down to the experience of life with a vagina. Otherwise, these quotes would read: “Vaginas are needed wherever decisions are made,” or “People with periods are needed wherever we make important decisions.” Undoubtedly, these quotes would no longer be so popular as to be emblazoned on T-shirts and posters on dorm room walls, precisely because they would no longer speak the same truth about the realities of womanhood—a truth which has resonated deeply with women from all walks of life since they were first uttered.
Particularly as a pregnant woman, I want a medical provider who recognizes the truth and dignity of my womanhood. When I ask myself if the esteemed physicians and editors of The Lancet would consider me little more than a “body with a vagina,” I am unconvinced they would accord me that dignity—and therefore dubious of their ability to see me or my unborn daughter as the whole persons we are.