Reproductive rights and trans rights: deeply interconnected yet too often misunderstood?

By Dr Chamindra Weerawardhana

When the issue of reproductive justice is raised, many people tend to focus exclusively on cisgender women. It is of vital importance to extend reproductive justice-related activism and discourses to include trans/genderqeer/nonbinary and other gender-plural people, which also involves using gender-inclusive language.[*] Over the last few years, trans activists have increasingly sought to highlight the salient reality that reproductive justice acutely concerns trans people, but more work is required to make reproductive justice-related debates and campaigns more trans-inclusive. The New York Abortion Access Fund (NYAAF), for example, has taken steps to alter its core documentation (including its mission statement) and make services more gender inclusive. When trans people are brought to deal with issues of reproductive justice, they are forced to face a redoubled doze of discrimination, uptight patriarchal attitudes, healthcare provision-related complications and social stigma — to name but a few.

Reproductive Rights and Tans Rights: Closely Intertwined

Just as trans identities are constantly attacked, insulted and questioned by trans-exclusionary reactionary feminists (TERFs — this writer categorically refuses to use the adjective ‘radical’ to describe this cohort, as there is nothing radical about them) upholding a narrowly defined set of ideas of yesteryear, the call for gender inclusive language in reproductive justice-related campaigns, services and documentation routinely earns TERF wrath. Many trans activists and reproductive justice specialists have strongly demonstrated the abject ludicrousness of such critiques. Dr Cheryl Chastine MD, an abortion service provider, wrote a trenchant article last year, clarifying the importance of brushing off reactionary opposition and making a very strong case for rendering reproductive justice-related campaigns and services gender inclusive.

Just like trans identities, the issue of reproductive justice is one that deeply offends patriarchal assumptions of childbirth and parenting. This, if anything, provides a crucial reason to conceptualise reproductive justice as an issue that directly concerns a range of people, from cisgender women to transgender men and genderqueer/non-binary and other gender-plural people. In the recent past, there has been a positive upsurge of efforts to portray and share the stories of trans men and non-binary/genderqueer individuals who have experienced or are living through pregnancy, nursing and parenting. The documentary A Womb of Their Own, directed by Cynthia Lubow sheds light on multiple experiences of trans men and non-binary/genderqueer people when dealing with pregnancy, childbirth, nursing and parenting.

A photography project by Jess T. Dugan entitled Every breath we drew also portrays images of trans men and nonbinary people experiencing pregnancy. The extent of concern in the worldwide trans community with regards to reproductive justice can be glimpsed in the many blogs and information resources that have lately appeared online, especially catering to trans people, such as the blog Trans Pregnancy and Abortion Resource.

My body, my business: a poignant personal narrative

Making a crucial contribution to public awareness on trans identities and reproductive justice, trans men who have experienced reproductive-justice-related services, especially in the form of undergoing an abortion, are increasingly sharing their stories. These are stories that society and the media generally tend to shun, side-line, and misinterpret at best. An excerpt of one such account, of a trans man who had an abortion, is worth quoting at some length:

I’m a man. And I had an abortion when I was 27.
I’m trans, and I was sexually assaulted by a group of armed men who apparently could see past two years of testosterone treatment and wanted to “prove” that I was “really” a woman. It happened in broad daylight in a park. There were people within earshot, and no one did anything. Among the many other issues that arose out of the assault, I got pregnant.
I never thought I would have to worry about that. After all, I’d been on testosterone for two years and I felt sure that my whole reproductive system had been suppressed by the male hormones. But, hey, apparently that wasn’t the case. It doesn’t really make sense to me even now; by all scientific rights, I should not have been able to conceive. Nonetheless, there I was, a man finding out that he was pregnant.
Getting that abortion probably saved my life (emphasis mine).

The writer then powerfully highlights the interrelatedness between reproductive justice and justice for trans/genderqueer/nonbinary and other gender-plural people:

I believe in choice. I believe in bodily autonomy. I believe that people should have the right and opportunity to make choices about their bodies that are best for them. I don’t think there’s a litmus test for what qualifies as an “acceptable” abortion. I don’t need someone telling me that my abortion was sort of ok because it was due to a sexual assault, but someone else’s is not. That’s not how choice works.
Trans liberation and reproductive justice movements must go hand in hand. Social justice movements in general need to be intersectional; struggles never just impact one kind of person. Trans individuals and those fighting for reproductive justice–and there are already plenty of people falling under both categories doing the work–probably agree that we’re all working toward the same goal: the ability for each of us to inhabit our own bodies and be supported in doing so. Lack of control over our bodies, sex and reproduction are huge issues for both trans and cisgender people. There’s commonality in the fight for liberation (emphasis mine).

Trans rights/justice and reproductive rights/justice are both struggles to gain control over one’s body. The intersectionality between trans and reproductive justice therefore deserves increased attention and prioritising, among trans and pro-choice activists, lobbyists and rights advocates. It is of equal importance for legislatures and lawmakers to take into account the intersectional interconnectivities between trans and reproductive justice.

Aversion to trans bodies: signature feature of many a legislature?

Accessing reproductive justice-related care and support can be extremely challenging for trans men and genderqueer/non-binary people, irrespective of where they are based. Even in countries where reproductive justice is addressed with an open-minded spirit, trans people often risk negative treatment as a consequence of gender-identity-related conservatisms, prejudices and misunderstandings. Governments, even in countries celebrated for promoting equality and justice, have long used legislation on trans people’s reproductive health as a weapon to abjectly dehumanise trans people.

Many countries continue to require trans people to undergo surgery for legal gender recognition. Until recently, several EU member states upheld a blatantly inhuman policy of forcing trans people to be sterilised prior to legal gender change. It was only in 2014 that Denmark scrapped this policy. Sweden, which had an identical policy, abolished it in 2012, and it was only in 2014 that Swedish authorities stopped requiring a compulsory mental health diagnosis for legal gender recognition. In a landmark move, Ireland passed a Gender Recognition Act in 2015, enabling legal gender change without any surgery. Yet, the Irish law does not recognise gender-non-conforming/nonbinary identities on identity documentation, and Ireland is also home to extremely rigid and restrictive legislation on accessing reproductive justice.

It was only in March 2015 that the Committee on Equality and Non-Discrimination of the Council of Europe adopted a resolution that calls upon member states to address blatant discrimination against trans people, which often amounts to infringements of fundamental human rights. Although the abjectly inhuman compulsory sterilisation of trans people has been scrapped in several countries, acute breaches of fundamental rights continue in many countries, such as restrictions on relationships, obligations to divorce when changing one’s legal gender, loss of control over one’s body, including reproductive capabilities. Amnesty International emphasises trans rights in its campaigns, but a long way lies ahead for trans people to wholesomely secure their erstwhile fundamental rights.

International Human Rights: a sorry state of affairs?

In terms of international human rights, LGBTQI rights in general and trans rights in particular are not sufficiently enshrined in legally binding treaties. The Yogyakarta Principles of 2006, which stipulate twenty-nine principles to facilitate international human rights lacunae regarding LGBTQI rights, have been met with vehement opposition from some countries and regional bodies, and none of its stipulations have been adopted in the form of an official international treaty. The Yogyakarta principles (especially Principle 17) emphasise the importance of reproductive justice to LGBTQI people. Similar to LGBTQI rights and especially trans rights, international human rights law is especially lukewarm when it comes to reproductive justice. The UN has affirmed that reproductive rights are crucial to achieving gender equality worldwide, and that access to abortion is a human right, but these expressions of concern have not led to legally binding international treaties that guarantee reproductive justice.

In terms of international human rights law, trans and reproductive justice share a quasi-identical absence of commitment and legally binding engagement.

Marginalising reproductive justice: A case of human rights hypocrisy?

Having clearly established that justice for trans people and reproductive justice go hand in hand, I will now shift to another crucial aspect of the debate on reproductive justice, highlighting how class, wealth and racial hierarchies are decisive to the ways in which priorities are set when it comes to progressive legislation. Reproductive justice cannot be consistently discussed in the absence of a closer look at the politico-economic and class factors behind legislatures’ reluctance to move forward on a progressive path.

In the western world, and despite substantive advancements in discourses on fundamental rights, the issue of reproductive justice remains a side-lined one, to which authorities and politicians tend to accord a lesser degree of priority. This is extremely evident, for example, in the strong emphasis on equal marriage especially in countries such as the USA and Ireland (the fact that equal marriage is, to take an intersectional turn, inherently unequal — is a topic for a separate article). The enactment of equal marriage in Ireland surprised many who perceived the Irish Republic to be a state that staunchly adheres to Catholic conservatisms. The underlying political economy of this phenomenon is of much interest. Just as in the USA (and in France, for that matter), the (largely white) wealthy LGB lobbies are reinforcing their socio-political and corporate influence, and equal marriage serves as a legislative provision that facilitates their lifestyles. In the USA, equal marriage (as many trans activists, especially trans activists and artists of colour, have repeatedly highlighted) does not benefit a large segment of the LGBTQI community, especially trans people of colour struggling at the margins in crushing poverty, undocumented people — many of them languishing in immigration detention, in a prison structure that regularly misgenders trans/nonbinary/gender-plural people, and consequently, exposes them to tremendous violence, abuse and death.

By no means is this argument intended at downgrading the importance of equal marriage legislation. Instead, the focus here is on the political economy of incentives for the provision of legislation, and how, in practice, progressive legislation is marred by gender, class and wealth demarcations. Had reproductive justice been more of a cisgender men’s issue (read white privileged cisgender men’s issue), full access to reproductive rights with no restrictions would have been implemented decades ago.

Trans and reproductive justice: not a concern for the wealthy?

Reproductive justice is an issue that does not negatively affect the aforementioned privileged lobby, irrespective of the country in question. In Ireland, a wealthy person, cis or trans, requiring an abortion always has the option of travelling to Britain or to a reputed private healthcare facility in continental Europe. The same applies to a rich (more often than not white) American requiring an abortion. Similarly — and herein lies the crucial socio-economic interconnection between trans rights and reproductive rights ­– it is ordinary and less privileged trans/gender-plural people who suffer from financial issues to access medical treatment required to simply feel comfortable in their bodies, to be able to see themselves in a mirror with confidence. The process of affirming one’s true gender identity and real self[†] is time consuming and costly, and for those with limited means, it can take years. Just as for wealthy people seeking an abortion, the small minority of wealthy trans people can also access the highest-level services and care, whether their healthcare plan/NHS/social security covers the costs or not. Those campaigning for trans/nonbinary/gender-plural rights and reproductive rights and justice are therefore up against the same identical adversary — a neoliberal patriarchy with stern socioeconomic inequalities.

In conclusion, it is vital to reiterate how patriarchal conceptions of the gender binary make trans identities unwelcome in spaces related to childbirth, parenting and family lives. Society seeks to violently stigmatise parents who happen to be trans, as well as trans children. Oppressive and exclusionary value systems are at the heart of rigid perceptions of gender, informing people of what a ‘mother’ and a ‘father’ should look like, and, as opponents of equal marriage argue, that a real family is one with a cisgender female mother and a cisgender male father. To take a cue from France’s former Justice Minister Christiane Taubira, who passionately and powerfully tore patriarchal conceptions of family and parenting to pieces in defending her Mariage pour tous bill in 2013, it is extremely crucial to stand against and dismantle archaic patriarchal attitudes. The struggle for fundamental rights is very much a daily battle to trans and other gender plural people worldwide. To some trans men, pregnancy may represent an experience that collides with their gender identity. Others may perceive pregnancy as a unique element of trans manhood, and giving birth as a trans man as an extremely powerful (if not the most powerful) act of resistance against patriarchal gender norms and prejudices. When it comes to issues of pregnancy, childbirth and parenting, it is up to each individual (and on this note irrespective of their gender identity), and not to those paying lip service to patriarchy, to determine how they wish to proceed.

This is the erstwhile fundamental right that is being summarily denied to people, affecting cisgender women, trans men, and queer/nonbinary and other gender-plural people. Our bodies are ours, and legislatures and judiciaries ought to exist to facilitate our efforts to take control of and manage our bodies, and not to impose dogmas, piles of discrimination, violence and recrimination upon our bodies. When the latter occurs, it is crucial that we stand together, cis, trans/genderqueer/nonbinary/gender-plural, to fight tirelessly to dismantle repressive structures of oppression, and work towards liberation.

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[*] For purposes of brevity, this article uses ‘trans’ as an umbrella term when referring to transgender, genderqueer, nonbinary, agender, and other gender-plural people.

[†] This is an effort to avoid using the term ‘transition’– trans people do not ‘transition’ into something different, or to something they are not. All they do is discover their real gender identity, what they have always been in their inner selves, affirming who they really are, taking pride in their real selves, openly, in a process of redefining realness. The term ‘transition’ does not render justice to this strenuous and challenging yet extremely unique and rewarding experience.