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Do we need the word ‘woman’ in healthcare?
  1. Sara Dahlen
  1. Department of Global Health and Social Medicine, King's College London, London, UK
  1. Correspondence to Dr Sara Dahlen, Global Health and Social Medicine, King's College London, London, UK; s.dahlen{at}doctors.org.uk

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Should clinicians be using the word ‘woman’ in medical language? Are phrases like ‘human milk’, ‘parental’ and ‘hand-held notes’ preferable to ‘breastmilk’, ‘maternal’ and ‘maternity notes’1? Whether to adopt a new terminology is a complex question, worthy of reflection and analysis, and open dialogue between patients, clinicians and academics. While new phrases might be argued as socially progressive, their ability to translate into medical practice or general health messaging seems currently uncertain. Clinicians might be put into a difficult position of balancing various concerns around language choice in healthcare communication, and it is, therefore, important they are aware of multiple viewpoints.

The omission of words such as ‘woman’ or ‘mother’ in favour of ‘gender inclusive’ or ‘gender neutral’ terminology tends to signal the clinician’s acknowledgement of a minority group. It is a form of communication aiming to be sensitive to the needs of transgender people, who have an identity or sense of self that is incongruent with their reproductive biology. Transgender patients require medical care appropriate to their bodies, but may not wish to be described by common words that reference their natal sex. Thus, an argument made for gender inclusive terminology might be that because some individuals with the capacity to gestate a child do not identify as women, pregnancy ought not be described solely as a ‘women’s issue’.1–3 Academic publications may adopt gender neutral language for topics in female reproductive health. Examples include: a study protocol on menstruation using ‘people who menstruate’,4 an update of cervical cancer screening guidelines writing ‘individuals with a cervix’5 or an ethics paper exploring elective caesareans during the COVID-19 pandemic writing ‘pregnant person’.3 Yet, gender neutral language may be met with resistance when applied to other contexts.

When Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals (BSUH) NHS Trust launched …

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Footnotes

  • Contributors The author is the sole contributor and responsible for the content of this piece.

  • Funding The author has not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

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