By Joanna Williams, the founder of the think tank Cieo. She is the author of Women vs Feminism, Why We All Need Liberating From the Gender Wars and is a regular columnist for Spiked. Follow her on Twitter @jowilliams293
When does a man become a mum, or a woman a dad? This is not the first line of a riddle, but a question faced by judges in the UK's Supreme Court this week, in a case brought by transgender parent Freddy McConnell.
Documentary subject Freddy McConnell attends the "Seahorse" screening during the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival at Village East Cinema on April 27, 2019 in New York City. © Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival / Theo Wargo
McConnell was born female and raised as a girl, but later began to identify as a man. In 2013, McConnell began the process of medical transition, first taking hormone therapy and, the following year, undergoing a double mastectomy. At this point, McConnell decided to pause transition and – still having their ovaries and uterus intact – became pregnant.
Biology might have been on McConnell’s side, but it turns out the law was not. Legally, if you are pregnant and give birth, then you are a mother. How you identify is irrelevant. Of course, in private, your friends, family, and children can call you anything they like. And families come in all shapes and sizes, with foster mothers, stepmothers, and adopted mothers. However, much to McConnell’s consternation, a birth certificate legally records the key facts of a child’s birth – including the name of their mother – irrespective of the wishes, feelings, or identities of all concerned.
Since giving birth in 2018, McConnell has campaigned tirelessly to have this overturned and to be recorded as ‘father’ or simply ‘parent’ – anything, in fact, other than ‘mother’. But, in September 2019, the High Court ruled that McConnell must be recorded as the child’s mother. Both the Appeal Court and now the Supreme Court have confirmed this judgment.
It is good to see that common sense has prevailed. A birth certificate is not meant to be an esteem-boosting, identity-affirming statement for parents, but a public record of facts. A birth certificate records who was born, when, and where, and who gave birth – not what the participants wanted to have happened. This legal document is important for historical record. It provides a reference for the child in years to come, although this point seems easily forgotten amid concern for the feelings of parents in the present.
Women should welcome the Supreme Court’s decision. Too often, it seems that supporting the rights of transgender people means denying the biological reality of women. In September, Tampax launched a marketing campaign aimed at “people who bleed.” La Leche League offers support to “chest feeders,” as well as breastfeeding mums. The American Cancer Society recommends regular smear tests for “people with a cervix.” Most tragically of all, Sands, a charity that supports people through the experience of stillbirth and neonatal death, described mothers as “birthing parents.”
These clumsy ways of avoiding saying the word ‘woman’ do not trip off the tongue and neither do they make any sense. The Guardian, writing about Freddy McConnell, helpfully explains: “He retained his female reproductive system. He gave birth after suspending his hormone treatment and allowing his menstrual cycle to restart.” But any 10-year-old fresh out of a science class, or sex and relationships education, knows this is nonsense. Men do not have a female reproductive system, they do not have a menstrual cycle, and they do not give birth. Pretending they do is indulging a fantasy.
Making up phrases to avoid saying “woman” or “mother” is profoundly alienating. Expressions such as “people with a cervix” and “people who bleed” reduce women to body parts and biological functions. Becoming pregnant and giving birth are hugely significant events in a woman’s life. When a man can become a “mother,” the word is rendered meaningless. It becomes a mere job description.
As the backlash to Sands referring to “birthing parents” shows, even if, tragically, a baby dies or is stillborn, women who give birth still consider themselves mothers. In the context of our own families, the words “mum” and “dad” take on a special significance to describe a particular emotional bond and relationship, but this is never to deny that they simultaneously carry a public legal and biological meaning.
It takes an incredible degree of narcissism to be so wrapped up in your own identity that you are prepared to ride roughshod over historical record; biological reality; social, cultural and linguistic conventions; and the future rights of your own child. But Freddy McConnell is insistent the entire world should now conspire in a lie. Despite getting pregnant and giving birth, McConnell expects society to fall in line and collude to keep reality out of the public record.
In recent years, women have been expected to give up a great deal to transgender activists. Biological males who identify as women have been granted access to women’s changing rooms, prisons, and refuges. The McConnell case is one of the few examples in which a major social change has been subject to legal scrutiny, and the case has been settled in favour of women. Yet many other changes that impact on women and girls have been implemented in the name of trans rights without any public or legal consultation.
Freddy McConnell seems intent on pursuing this matter still further. We can only hope the European Court of Human Rights maintains a grip on reality.
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