This blog post is the transcript from an episode of the SRHM Podcast titled Trans Reproductive Justice with Avery Everhart, Blas Radi and A.J. Lowik.
The SRHM Podcast is available for free on all major platforms.
Hi everyone and welcome to the SRHM Podcast. My name is Nina Sun and I am an associate editor for the SRHM Journal.
Today’s episode builds on an SRHM article by Blas Radi entitled Reproductive injustice, trans rights, and eugenics. The article explores how the recognition of gender identity of trans people can have negative consequences on their reproductive health and rights.
The conversation you’re about to hear features Professor Blas Radi, Dr. A.J. Lowik and is moderated by Avery Everhart who is a researcher working at the intersections of health, social, and spatial sciences with a particular focus on the health and human rights of transgender and gender diverse communities around the world. She is a co-founder of the Center for Applied Transgender Studies and is in her final year of a PhD program at the University of Southern California.
We hope you enjoy this episode.
Avery Everhart: Hello everyone, and welcome to this episode of the Sexual and Reproductive Health Matters podcast. We’re going to be focused on transgender rights reproductive justice and eugenics based largely in conversation with Blas Radi’s recent article in the journal. So, I’m going to jump right in for the sake of time to make sure that we can get to both of our esteemed speakers in response to this prompt. So, I’m joined, as I mentioned, by Blas Radi, who is a philosopher and a trans activist based in Buenos Aires, Argentina. And I’m also joined by Dr. A.J. Lowik who is a scholar, researcher, instructor and consultant based in Vancouver, Canada, working in the area of trans reproductive life and health. Now, I’m really excited to be in conversation with you both. And really, really just grateful for the opportunity to have this conversation.
So, to start, and jump right in, trans rights are often framed in terms of a ‘debate’ by anti-trans activists. One of their sticking points is the question of language (so, things like, “you can’t say woman anymore” or “biological sex matters” etc.). In particular, this shift from “women” as a category in law, in theory, in social movements, to “birthing people” or “people who can become pregnant” is sometimes controversial. How do each of you respond to this? What examples from your work, either in law/policy or in social movement work and community organizing, could you share related to the question of inclusive language?
Blas Radi: Thanks a lot, Avery for the intro. It’s great to see that my paper has brought an opportunity to discuss these topics. And I am very excited to share this conversation with you both. As for your question, I would separate here two related phenomena – which are two political intervention strategies:
First: linguistic intervention strategies. They search for a genderless language. Spanish, as a Romance language, distinguishes the grammatical gender of animate nouns and gender is also marked in adjectives – so, gender has a very evident presence in communication.
Second: the creation and transformation of concepts. This is an exercise of poetic imagination that refers to the production and circulation of hermeneutical resources to give meaning to a set of experiences that were not properly captured by existing concepts. For example, the concept of “pregnant people” instead of “pregnant women.” In English you may ask, why not just say “pregnant”? Well, because in Spanish adjectives must be gendered, and in the case of “pregnant” it turns out to always be “embarazada” – that is: pregnant woman.
These two strategies respond to the same problem: cisnormativity – that is the social system of punishments and rewards that ensures the materialization of this expectation that all people are cis. This means that both seek to change not language but through language an asymmetrical and unjust context. And the point is not so much that trans people feel included, but (for starters) to intervene in the hegemonic meanings of our collective imaginary (including those that are played out in the doctor’s office or in a hospital emergency room).
Both strategies have been deployed and, of course, have brought about enormous resistance. The objections against them are very varied and include, among other things, the defense of traditional language as the heritage of the linguistic community (something very curious, given that Spanish is a language that has been imposed by the colony) and also include the custody of the binary of sexual difference.
But it would not make sense to pose a scenario of antagonisms “for and against”. Of course, these two strategies have firm opponents. But the challenges are also in their adoption. Let me point out two salient problems:
- These strategies and concepts are the fruit of the work of trans and non-binary activists and movements. But we see again and again that the reflections and resources we produce tend to be taken by other people as if they were just free-floating ideas, fruits to be harvested from the public tree of concepts. So, anyone can use them without making the relevant references – or even claiming authorship.
- The institutional adoption of inclusive language strategies often functions as a mechanism to produce a fantasy of inclusion on a strongly exclusionary basis. Neutral expressions are used – for example, by the government or feminist organizations – or reference is made to “pregnant people” and social justice is assumed to have been achieved without making major transformations.
A.J. Lowik: I sometimes hear from people that they worry about how this shift towards inclusive, neutral language – like pregnant people or menstruators, etc. – is erasing women. They list real, and very important reasons why they think women ought to be named explicitly – from recognizing cis women’s oppression under patriarchy, to wanting to acknowledge the heavy and disproportionate reproductive burden that cis women carry, wanting to acknowledge the barriers to care that women experience in terms of access reproductive health care that isn’t paternalizing and patronizing, etc. And I don’t disagree – however, I don’t think that the solution should be to name women but no one else! I’ve been seeing shifts towards “women and other pregnant people,” for example and this shift irks me, since I would argue that if explicitly naming cis women is important for all of these itemized reasons and more, than explicitly naming trans people is also important! We are also oppressed under cispatriarchy, we also experience a myriad of barriers to affirming, supportive and competent reproductive health care. So, if we are naming women, but no one else, that does us a great disservice, to all of the other pregnant people, all of the other menstruators who are literally rendered ‘other’ in this framing.
So, instead I like to advocate for a combination of gender-neutral and gender-specific and additive language – this approach is attentive and conscious of gender, and thus doesn’t necessary strive for genderlessness. So, and for example, if we want to talk about pregnant people (all of them, not just cis women) and if we had concerns about how a gender-neutral approach like pregnant persons might have a negative impact, then we could potential use additive and specific language. We can say pregnant women, men, non-binary people, and anyone else who has experienced pregnancy – we can name everyone that we understand as having this particular experience, an experience that is conventionally and cisnormatively gendered because it is associated with some sex-based phenomena. Then, and thereafter, we can say ‘pregnant people,’ having first established that we are using this language expansively and inclusively, and then we could, thereafter, talk about different subcategories within this group – we could talk about pregnant women, or we could talk about pregnant non-binary people, we could be more specific, having established what we mean by pregnant people in the first place.
If we concede that there are issues of erasure occurring via the use of neutral language – and indeed, in Canada, in 1928, the Supreme Court ruled that women were not persons according to the British North America Act. This decision was reversed in 1929, and women were thus established as persons under the law. But, if we want to be attentive to this history and we are cautious in our use of gender-neutral language for any number of reasons – the solution is not to revert back to cisnormative gendered language that excludes trans people – the solution is not to just say ‘pregnant women,’ because that contributes to its own dangerous and harmful erasure of another group of structurally marginalized and minoritized people. I don’t see this as an ‘either/or’ issue, but rather as a ‘yes, and,’ issue – Reproductive justice is about cis people certainly, but it’s also about trans folks. We need to see reproductive justice and equity as our common goals, rather than allowing ourselves to be divided on the basis on shifts in language.
Avery Everhart: Wow, what a fantastic entry point. And thank you both for those really thoughtful responses to a really open-ended prompt. Having now sort of addressed this core issue about language and inclusion at the level of language, and what we mean by inclusion and what language does, I want to get a little bit more directed and practical and ask about specific concerns that you might have in the context in which you work. These could be geopolitical, cultural, socio-legal concerns. But I want to know from both of you, how are the social movements for trans rights and for reproductive justice influenced or shaped by those really specific concerns in the geographic context in which you both work?
Blas Radi: Among the challenges I find in Argentina are some chronic problems of the health system and others that respond to the current political situation.
- The underfunding of the public health system and the lack of supplies.
- The geographic barriers that make health services (and in particular health services that guarantee reproductive rights) not equally accessible throughout the country.
- Inadequate training of health professionals and all relevant personnel. At present, the most up-to-date initiatives in sex education continue to rely on ideas of sexual difference as a biological fact.
- The conservatism and fundamentalism of health professionals – which of course is related to the previous point.
- The eagerness of feminist movements and the State to show that the reproductive rights of trans people are already covered because we have a gender identity law (which does not refer to reproductive rights at all) or because the relevant legislation and official documents on abortion use inclusive language.
- The co-optation of social movements by the State.
- The de facto priority given to rights (and, above all, to the text of the laws that enshrine them) at the expense of the corresponding obligations. And the lack of monitoring and accountability mechanisms that could ensure that those obligations are fulfilled.
- The reduction of the catalog of reproductive rights to the right to abortion. This is something that has been seen in feminist activism in recent years and that unfortunately has had a lot of impact in our movements. Trans movements have stepped up in favor of legal abortion for trans and non-binary people, and sometimes, that’s it. Questions of family planning, of reproductive technologies (even forced sterilization and the right to retain our fertility), are left out, but they have not disputed the reduction of reproductive rights to the right to abortion.
A.J. Lowik: In Canada and the United States, we have something called consciousness objection, which ostensibly allows a health care provider to not provide certain kinds of health care due to their own personal beliefs. I will not, in this space, provide my personal take on whether or not we ought to have consciousness objection – but I will instead comment on the consequences of this right within reproductive justice and trans health contexts. In both Canada and the United States, we see health care providers refusing to provide abortion, emergency contraception, IUDs, tubal ligations, hysterectomy, etc. And we are also seeing an increase in refusal to provide gender-affirming care, including puberty blockers for young people, gender-affirming hormones and referrals to surgery, etc. On the other hand, Canada and the United States have both a historical legacy of eugenics, and engage in ongoing eugenic strategies both positive and negative, where the reproductive potential of some is safeguarded, and the reproductive potential of others is devalued and thus subject to these kinds of interventions and prohibitions.
I think that we need to build alliances between what we might, at first blush, understand as separate movements. And I want to build here on the work of Florence Ashley, when we talk about the challenges to the autonomy of youth in terms of their access to puberty blockers, this challenge to the autonomy of youth poses a threat to those same youth being able to access abortion, and medically consent to abortion regardless of age. If we silo reproductive rights from trans rights, we forget that trans people have reproductive lives and health care needs, too – we then see trans health services and trans activist efforts being relatively silent on reproductive health and justice issues, and we see reproductive justice strategies and reproductive health care providers and policymakers failing to meet the needs of their trans patients or clients. Further, we tend in Canada to assume that we have universal access because our health care is called ‘universal.’ It simply isn’t, and there’s a myriad of barriers for many communities in this country – for trans health, for reproductive health care, even just accessing a family doctor.
Like Blas, I have concerns about our medical education, where even at its core, there is a misunderstanding, a missuse of sex and gender as concepts – they are so frequently confused and conflated, treated as though they are interchangeable. More than that, we see ‘sex’ being mobilized as this like, purely biological, immutable fact – at least, as it is applies to endosex people, that is, people who are not understood as intersex, because for intersex folks, we understand sex as being absolutely changeable, with various interventions – so, a bit of a hypocrisy there. We need to better understand how gender – the gender/sex binary as we know it, is inextricably tangled with white, Western coloniality, with the attempted erasure of Indigenous and non-white ways of knowing and being. We need to remember that what we declare as objective ‘scientific truths’ are rarely, if ever objective – that the gender/sex binary as we know it, is an ideology, and it’s a pervasively harmful one that we have built into everything, from our medical systems to our research agendas, our policies, our practices and our laws.
Avery Everhart: Thank you, again, for such really thoughtful responses and for giving us a little bit more context about where you both work and the overlapping but also distinct concerns in your geographic contexts. So, now I want to think of a sort of a different mode and return to the framework of reproductive justice and reproductive rights and point out that the conversation centers – or perhaps it should even if it doesn’t always center – the conversation on reproductive justice and reproductive rights usually centers on those who can become pregnant. At the same time, in some trans and gender diverse communities, there is a really strong aversion to centering any issue that may be tied to assigned sex at birth (ASAB). And I’m curious, how does this come up for you in your work – or, if it comes up? And where do trans people who cannot become pregnant fit in the reproductive justice or reproductive rights conversation?
Blas Radi: I believe that focusing reproductive justice and rights issues on people who can get pregnant only makes sense if reproductive justice is reduced to the experiences of pregnancy and abortion. I know that this is the current language of many reproductive rights movements, and well, it is unfortunate. Among other things because it reduces reproductive rights and, with it, the universe of subjects of those rights.
Now, as you rightly point out, there is also among trans people a resistance to take into consideration issues related to (I would say) reproductive capacities or sexual characteristics.
This is not capricious: historically, the focus on sexual characteristics has been at the heart of the anti-trans discourse. Anti-trans feminists still define women in terms of physical criteria linked to their reproductive capacities, so it stands to reason that trans people have no interest in engaging in conversations that might reinstate some of the meanings at play here. But this has a very high cost, which trans people are paying. On the one hand, because they end up forcibly renouncing their reproductive life. On the other hand, because it ends up reinforcing, ironically, a criterion that should be challenged: the cisnormative criterion of hegemonic feminism.
This makes me think of the National Women’s Meetings in Argentina, which are annual feminist, self-convened and federal forums that have been held in Argentina since 1986. These meetings emerged with the aim of “addressing the specific problems of women in our country”, including, of course, health and reproductive rights. These meetings are very relevant for the definition of the agenda and priorities of local gender-related movements.
Since the year 2000, heated discussions about the participation of travestis and trans women became increasingly visible. And today, travestis and trans women are welcome because the organizers of the forums have stipulated that gender is understood in terms of internal experience, and that this is the criterion for admission. But trans and non-binary people assigned female at birth who do not identify as women are still left out. They are left out of the places where movements define the reproductive rights agenda.
A few years ago, an American trans writer and activist described a similar conflicting scenario at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival and argued for trans women to be admitted and trans men to be expelled. I guess the implicit premise here could be that if trans men are accepted it is by virtue of a community founded on physical characteristics, and that would imply that trans women are not women.
But, I couldn’t disagree more with her because what needs to be discussed in these cases is not who should be left out (whether it’s trans women or trans men). What needs to be discussed is the criteria for political participation and its underlying cisnormative logic.
A.J. Lowik: In my response to this question, I’d really like to highlight the work of micha cárdenas, in particular her paper, “Pregnancy: Reproductive Futures in Trans of Colour Feminism.” cárdenas frames violence against trans women, in particular violence against trans women of colour, as a pressing reproductive justice issue. She argues that since trans women of colour as disproportionately effected by violence, are disproportionately murdered, that they are unable to live “long enough to realize their dreams of having children.” I think we need to think about all of the inequities that exist, and not just for people capable of pregnancy, but for all people. Our reproductive justice movements, efforts, research, law, policy reform, will only be improved, if we both bring the most marginalized to the centre of our considerations, and if we think in expansive and intersectional ways. Not being able to live long enough, or not being able to live a life that isn’t focused solely on surviving, is a reproductive justice issue that we ought to carefully attend to, for the sake of trans women, trans femmes, and non-binary folks, and really, for anyone who experiences violence in disproportionate ways. I think that we can attend to the material body, without reducing people to it and without reifying this problematic gender and sex binary, without refying cisnormativity. Reproductive justice is actually an issue that effects all of us, regardless of the body that we live in, and regardless of how we identify.
Avery Everhart: Wow, yet again, this whole time that both of you have been speaking of kind of like snapping and clapping in the background, just really, really thoughtful and thought-provoking answers. So, I really appreciate it. And I think that since we’re getting near the end, it’s the perfect time to pose a question that I’ve sort of had on the tip of my tongue the whole time, because throughout this conversation, each of us have used reproductive justice and reproductive rights. Personally, in my framing, I’ve used them interchangeably, even though they aren’t the same thing, and I should know better. But I want to ask if you both can offer your definition of reproductive justice? And maybe you could unpack a bit of what theoretical or social movement traditions it comes out of?
Blas Radi: I think that we can think of reproductive justice as an ideal and I don’t have a definition of ideal – and I don’t think there can be either. And we can also think of it as a socially committed theoretical approach, or a theoretical-informed social justice program, depending on what we want to emphasize. And in this sense – well, I have to say that in Argentina, the idea of reproductive justice works as a synonym of the right to abortion for cis women. Everything here has been very womanist and very focused on the legislation on abortion. So, it was fantastic for me to come across the work of Loretta Ross. Her work, and the work of those who follow in her wake, has brought fresh air to the field. I believe this is the most rigorous and appropriate approach, among other things because, instead of starting from a biased notion of justice (for example: justice is having legal abortion. Thus, once abortion is legal, we could assume that we live in a just world), well, it starts from a meticulous diagnosis of the problems that affect the most marginalized subjects in society. It does not start from ideals, but from the material conditions of existence.
I emphasize here the use of the non-ideal approach, which characterizes my philosophical work or the philosophical work I am interested in. It is an approach that recognizes the methodological priority of injustice and only then proposes notions of justice (which are always situated, provisional and open to revision). So, instead of starting from abstract understandings of what we mean by an ideally just society – paying relatively little attention to the contingencies of actual societies – we start from a rigorous diagnosis – one that centers the problems that tend to be overlooked by the abstract and general terms of ideal theory. That is: the notion of justice emerges after considering injustices, particularly those affecting the most marginalized subjects.
A.J. Lowik: I think it’s important that we remember the roots of this language, this reproductive justice term that we’ve been using throughout the episode today. And, just a reminder that this is a term that was coined in 1994 by a group called Women of African Descent for Reproductive Justice; that it is essentially Black feminists who are at the core of and who have coined this intersectional way of thinking about reproductive justice. Reproductive justice, in their framing, is about bodily autonomy, it’s about having children, but also not having children, and parenting in safe and sustainable communities – reproductive justice, as far as I understand it, has always been about challenging racism, classism, ableism, about multi-pronged strategies to address injustices at every turn, because everything, prison abolition to climate justice, are reproductive justice issues. The way I understand it, is that reproductive rights is just one part of a reproductive justice agenda, which is more expansive and all-encompassing in its scope. To me, that’s part of its beauty of reproductive justice as a framework, and all credit to Black feminist scholars, lawyers and activists for providing us with this really expansive and all-encompassing way of understanding the entanglement between reproductive justice and all kinds of societal inequities and injustices.
Avery Everhart: Thank you so much. For one I feel really personally edified that I feel like I can, I can move forward and say I have two really brilliant friends who offered some insight into how to draw this distinction between reproductive justice and reproductive rights. And I really also appreciate that A.J., speaking to the Black feminist tradition, and where we get the origin of reproductive justice, and I’m sure folks listening are definitely taking notes about who else they can reading and all the citations and other scholars that both of you have referenced. But personally, and perhaps selfishly, I like to end with concrete recommendations and I like to sort of say, okay, we’ve unpacked how complex and complicated these issues are, and personally, I’m a geographers, and I’m always thinking about scale in terms of macro versus micro, so like the individual versus the system-level. It’s quite often difficult to imagine really concrete strategies or even to offer actionable insights given how intractable these complex systems are. But with all of those caveats, if you’re up to it, please share some recommendations for how you would improve things in the spheres of trans rights and reproductive justice.
Blas Radi: This podcast, as well as the article that gave rise to it, is aimed at different audiences: social movements for sexual and reproductive rights, decision makers and policy makers, researchers and trans movements and activists. The recommendations for each group are different, but there are two that I can think of now as a common denominator, which may be useful for those who have an interest in addressing the issues we have been discussing here.
First, to challenge what I call “the logic of aggregation”, that is: we keep our ideas, expectations and institutions functioning as they did, until today, only that we enable a parallel space for trans people. Instead of moving forward with social and institutional change, we encapsulate trans people in the realm of exceptions. This must be challenged.
Second, to recognize the expertise of those who have been working on these issues for a long time. You may just be starting to consider trans reproductive rights as a relevant issue, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a long history and rigorous knowledge out there.
These two pieces of advice are interdependent… Let me tell you something. I am the coordinator of the Independent Chair of Trans Studies at the University of Buenos Aires. Last year we adapted Dr. Lowik’s brilliant manual on trans inclusive abortion services. The manual is available online and is open access and we learned that it has caused quite a stir in feminist organizations working on reproductive health and rights. In some cases, it raised internal discussions because some wanted to simply add it to the organization’s digital library and even promote it in the name of trans inclusivity, while others argued that in light of these contents all the work of the organization should be reviewed. Of course, this is much harder, but I think it is the most coherent thing to do, as well as the most fruitful, theoretically, politically and ethically speaking.
A.J. Lowik: And perhaps I’ll just briefly add a thank you for Blas for taking up this trans inclusive abortion manual work and bringing it to Argentina. And my kind of overall recommendation would be to go along with the adage of ‘nothing about us, without us’. And that trans people ought to be included in your work, whatever your work is, because we are already there and we are already entangled in all kinds of issues, reproductive rights issues, health issues, sexual health issues. So just acknowledge our presence because the eraser is debilitating to our lives.
Avery Everhart: Thank you so much to A.J. and Blas for really just going there, really actually going with these prompts and diving in deep and I really appreciate it and I feel like no matter the audience that hopefully they’ll be able to get something out the podcast, whether they’re working in law and policy, they’re working in service provision, they’re working in research, whatever it is. And just a reminder that if you came to the podcast by chance, by how it was advertised or whatever, to go take a little, little minute to read Blas’ article in Sexual and Reproductive Health Matters that sparked this conversation. And it’s called Reproductive Injustice, Trans Rights and Eugenics to see and read even more brilliance from Blas as well. And thank you so much again, and thanks to SRHM for having us.
Thank you to Avery Everhart, Blas Radi and A.J. Lowik for this insightful conversation. To read Blas Radi’s article on reproductive injustice, trans rights and eugenics, visit SRHM.org. All articles are available online and free access.
Please also see the episode description for links to the resources mentioned by the speakers.
Thank you for supporting the SRHM podcast which is produced by the SRHM staff. The music was composed by Tiber Krisztián and Salamon Botond.