Gender Neutrality

For those not in the know (probably most of my nonexistent readership, as I haven’t yet mentioned it on this blog), I am currently enrolled in two classes on morality this semester (under the same instructor, Dr. Melley). One is an introductory course – Contemporary Moral Issues – and the other an advanced course – Moral Problems in Medicine. Being that they are both courses in morality under the same instructor, there is some overlap (some of the external readings are the same, some of the issues are the same) but overall I’m enjoying it.

I just got finished catching up with some of the reading I’d missed (while being on the rifle range) for my Contemporary Moral Issues class. Abortion was the subject for one of the periods I’d missed. While doing the reading, something grated over and over again in my mind, harkening back to over three years ago when I first protested this nonsense – the non-neutral “gender neutrality” of the decidedly academic articles I was reading. In case you’re not familiar with my brand of sarcasm, go ahead and spice up the word “academic” in the previous sentence with a little hostility – hell, throw a dash of acidity. (The reason for this vehemence is simple: in school I was taught that it was acceptable to use the feminine pronoun as a form of ‘gender neutrality,’ and the idea seems to have taken off at the academy. To reasoning thinkers, it should be obvious why this is not neutral.)

Gender neutrality is a great idea, in theory and in practice. I can see now why women were (rightly) pissed off that everything used to be written in the masculine tone – now, as a man, I am very pissed off to find things constantly written in the feminine tone. There’s absolutely no need for it! In an essay from Don Marquis (included in my text but apparently originally published as “Why Abortion is Immoral” from The Journal of Philosophy in 1989), he unnecessarily starts using female pronouns halfway through. Where before, he referred to anti-abortionists and pro-choicers simply by those titles and nothing else, suddenly he interjects pronouns (bolded by me for emphasis):

“The pro-choicer fares no better. She may attempt to find reasons why killing…is wrong which are independent of her major principle that is supposed to explain the wrongness of taking human life….”

And again, later:

“[T]he pro-choicer cannot any more escape her problem by making person a purely moral category…”

It is interesting to note that the author never uses the feminine pronouns to describe anti-abortionists, and avoids masculine pronouns throughout. One then has to wonder – is this intentional? Is the author trying to make a statement about how women tend more towards being pro-choice (which I think is unfounded and stereotypical, and ironic considering he was probably using the feminine pronouns to avoid slighting women’s views), or implying that their opinion is more weighty in the arena of abortion debate? In either case, his careless use of the feminine pronouns distracted and irritated me, but we’ll get to his poor arguments about abortion later (perhaps in another post).

The second author, Jane English (a woman, I presume) makes the same mistakes, except much more often and much more offensively. These statements come from an essay titled “Abortion and the Concept of a Person,” originally published in the Canadian Journal of Philosophy in October 1975. (It struck me that these two articles are somewhat older – however, the book I’m reading them from is copyrighted 2010 and obviously published recently [no exact date given in the book], which makes these errors more inexcusable – there’s been literally decades to edit them!) I can forgive Don Marquis his errors as they were probably unintentional and largely harmless (I also quoted all of them, I believe), but Jane English takes a much more liberal approach to non-neutral gender neutrality that has much larger implications (leaving me much more frustrated and upset). It is relevant to note also that her article deals very much with what defines a person, in general, and during these segments, she is perfectly gender neutral – which only makes later (seemingly) careless statements all the more perplexing:

“Though the fetus is itself innocent, it may pose a threat to the pregnant woman’s well-being, life prospects or health, mental or physical. If the pregnancy presents a slight threat to her interests, it seems self-defense cannot justify abortion. But if the threat is on par with a serious beating…she may kill the fetus that poses such a threat…. It is unfortunate that the only way to free the woman from the pregnancy entails the death of the fetus…. Thus a self-defense model supports Thomson’s view that the woman has a right only to be freed from the fetus, not a right to demand its death.”

This sentence comes after an extended metaphor that equates the fetus to an innocent pawn under someone else’s malicious control, who it is okay to kill in self-defense as there are no other options. Where I take umbrage is the fact that Jane English completely ignores the male perspective on abortion, asserting (either accidentally or intentionally) that only a woman can be harmed by the birth of a child. While men can’t be harmed physically by pregnancy, fathers certainly face threats to their well-being, particularly mental and financial (which can create more mental problems and even physical ones too). No, a father cannot die due to complications arising from pregnancy, but a father also has absolutely no choice when it comes to whether or not a child is born – it is ultimately up to the woman, and if she makes a choice he doesn’t want, he must still buck up and take responsibility (either by becoming an active father, which constitutes its own sacrifices, or by making child support payments). Furthermore, the author’s choice of pronoun raises another interesting and tangential question – if women have the right to be freed from the burden of a fetus (but not a right to demand its death), why can’t men have the same right (especially when arguing from a framework that men and women are equal)? Men, again, can be victimized by unwanted pregnancies in many of the same ways that a woman can – so where’s the equality of analysis?

Another example:

“What if, after birth, the presence of an infant or the need to support it posed a grave threat to the woman’s sanity or life prospects?”

By using the word woman’s instead of something more neutral, like say, parents’, the author again seems to imply (whether intentionally or not) that fathers face no threat to their sanity or life prospects in the case of “the presence of an infant or the need to support it.” There is no need to single women out as the only caregivers, and the article isn’t even about women – it’s about whether or not abortion is morally justifiable, period! Considering it isn’t focused on women and is trying to make universal moral claims about the nature of abortion, a more universal perspective (that encompasses both parents and all parties affected by the infant and by abortion) would be advisable. Distastefully, the author’s conclusion is riddled with non-neutral gender neutrality:

“In the middle months…abortion would be justifiable only when the continuation of the pregnancy or the birth of the child would cause harms – physical, psychological, economic or social – to the woman. In the late months of pregnancy…abortion seems to be wrong except to save a woman from significant injury or death.”

Such a narrow (only looking at one gender) analysis weakens the overall essay’s applicability to all abortions, and further, its claims to be a more universal defense for abortion. Again, does the author mean to insinuate that men cannot face physical, psychological, economic or social harm due to his wife’s pregnancy or the birth of his child? Does the author mean to insinuate that the man’s opinion and welfare are completely irrelevant to the moral consideration of abortion? Under a higher sense of morality – say, a utilitarianist approach (doing the most good to the most amount of people) – a reasoned thinker would balk at that notion.

The frustrating thing is that the author actually does argue from a neutral perspective that includes men at several points. This lends credence to the notion that the slip ups were unintentional and probably happened as a result of “gender neutrality” trends in the academy, rather than actual beliefs or assertions about men and women. Take these statements as examples:

“I think it is no exaggeration to claim that unwanted pregnancies (most obviously among teenagers) often have…adverse life-long consequences….”


“…Abortion is permissible whenever it is in the interests of the pregnant woman or her family.”

The point is that gender neutrality is supposed to avoid alienating your audience due to the exclusion of perspectives, but it has gone so far off the deep end of making up for female exclusion that it has gone all the way to the opposite extreme – excluding males! This is especially disturbing since the main culprit seems to be the academy, which is where one expects a higher degree of thoughtfulness.

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