Content warning: This blog will discuss transphobia, cancer, HIV/AIDS and Piers Morgan.
Yesterday (31st of July 2020) Piers Morgan, disgraced former Daily Mirror editor and current morning TV talking head, decided once again to wade into the topic of trans health and identities, with a Tweet objecting to an American Cancer Society announcement on cervical cancer screening using the phrase “individuals with a cervix”, responding “Do you mean women?” Morgan responded to criticism that his initial intervention was transphobic, claiming that he was “ask[ing] why the word ‘women’ is being deliberately eradicated from common usage in case it offends people“. The lack of the word “why” in his initial tweet aside, it’s worth interrogating this a little further. Why do medical services use phrases like “individuals with a cervix” or “people with cervixes”? Is the purpose to deliberately eradicate another word from common usage or avoid offending people? And why do so many people call the sort of rhetoric deployed by the likes of Morgan transphobic?
The American Cancer Society, the NHS and charities with a particular interest in preventing cervical cancer (such as Jo’s Trust) recommend that any person with a cervix between the ages of 25 and 64 (inclusive) should have regular cervical screening. This screening exists to detect the early signs of cervical cancer and prevent or treat such cancers as early as possible. In order to clear up any potential confusion about who has a cervix or what the cervix is, Jo’s Trust provides a helpful guide:
Women are usually born with a cervix.
You may have a cervix if you are:
- a trans man and/or non-binary person who was assigned female at birth
- a man who has a difference in sex development (DSD) or is intersex.
In rare cases, women with DSD or who are intersex may be born without a cervix.
If you have had surgery, such as a hysterectomy, you may have had your cervix removed.
If you are not sure whether you have a cervix, it is best to speak with your GP.
– Jo’s Trust, About the cervix, retrieved 01/08/2020
In general, experts in cancer care and cervical health seem to agree that it is best to be specific, taking care to use language that acknowledges the existence of some people who will require their services who are not women (including some trans men, non-binary people and intersex men). In this way phrases like “individuals/people with a cervix” can be considered analogous to the use of the term “men who have sex with men” (MSM) by sexual health services. MSM are at higher risk for HIV/AIDS as well as a number of other serious sexual health issues, while it might be more typical in common usage to talk about “gay [and bisexual] men” or similar, there exist a subset of men who have sex with other men who do not identify with such terms. In order to ensure all MSM are included in the potentially life saving services they provide, such services avoid the question of how people identify.
From this it’s straightforward to infer that far from an attempt to “eradicate” particular words or erase women, terms like “people with cervixes” avoids messy (and ultimately irrelevant to cancer prevention) questions of gender identity and focuses on saving lives. As is often the case, the real political correctness, the real over-sensitivity to language, is coming from heteropatriarchal society and its defenders, who, it seems, care more about telling trans men and nonbinary people that they’re not really who they say they are than about saving lives and preventing cancer.
As the excellent People Who Menstruate blog illustrates, failure to include trans and nonbinary people with cervixes in screening programs (for example through the NHS’ erroneous practice of only considering age and gender labels in a database to decide who to invite for screening) puts trans lives in real danger. And as the tragic story of Robert Eads shows, healthcare exclusion really can be a matter of life and death. This is why what Piers Morgan said is, indeed, transphobic and why it’s also transphobic when similar sentiments are echoed by, for example, sitting Labour MPs.