Royal College of Midwives apologises after calling mothers ‘postnatal people’

·6-min read
A mother holding her newborn baby - Aleksander Nakic/E+
A mother holding her newborn baby - Aleksander Nakic/E+

The Royal College of Midwives referred to mothers as “postnatal people” in new guidance before issuing an apology hours later for “erasing” women.

The RCM published “safer sleep” guidance for those sharing a bed with their newborns and for helping them get to sleep.

However, the guidance, published on Wednesday evening, makes no reference to “women” or “mothers”, instead referring to “postnatal people”.

The publication sparked a backlash on social media, and by Thursday morning it had been removed from the RCM website.

The guidance described key areas which healthcare professionals should discuss with families during pregnancy and following birth.

Referring to sleeping arrangements, it said: “Postnatal people in hospital should have easy access to the call bell system, be shown how to use it and ensure it is working – they should be provided with a bed-side cot for the baby to use while in hospital.”

The RCM, whose chief executive is Gill Walton, is a member of the embattled Stonewall Diversity Champion programme, a paid-for scheme that aims to help firms “become more inclusive of LGBT people”.

‘Huge oversight on our part’

It released a statement apologising for omitting women from the guidance, stating: “We would like to apologise that women are not mentioned in our recent safer sleeping guidance.

“This was a huge oversight on our part, especially as we are committed as an organisation to ensure that women are never erased from the narrative around pregnancy [and] birth. We have taken it down from our website while we revise and correct this omission.”

Milli Hill, self-described “outspoken feminist” and “champion of female biology”, criticised the RCM for “making no mention of women or mothers” and instead referring to “postnatal people … in spite of the fact that evidence shows safety differences if baby co-sleeps with breastfeeding mum/non [breastfeeding] mum/dad”.

However, following the RCM’s U-turn, the freelance journalist said it was “really important to support the RCM” because “in this highly sensitive area it is very difficult to publicly admit you have made a mistake”.

“There may be questions to ask about how/why etc but in my view today should simply be about 100 per cent support for them,” she said.

Maya Forstater, a woman who lost her job after saying that people cannot change their biological sex and who went on to win a landmark appeal against an employment tribunal, also replied to the RCM’s statement on Twitter, saying: “Thank you!”

Organisations desert the Stonewall programme

The BBC recently said it would leave the Stonewall Diversity Champion programme because its participation had raised questions about whether it could be impartial on issues the LGBTQ+ charity is campaigning on.

Other organisations including Channel 4, Ofcom, the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the Cabinet Office have also made similar decisions.

Freddy McConnell, a trans man and journalist, lost a years-long legal battle to be registered as his first child’s “dad” or “parent” on their birth certificate.

Responding to the backlash, Mr McConnell said: “It’s a shame when self-styled birth activists use social-media moments like this to further their exclusionary agendas, rather than focusing on approaches that keep all babies, birthing mothers and people, and their co-parents, safe.”

‘Changing language at population level is about capitulating to ideology’

By Milli Hill , writer and campaigner

Using the word “woman” in relation to pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding - you would think it would be a dystopian world in which this was even an issue.

And yet, in November 2020, I was subjected to a wave of online attacks in which I was called “violent”, “dangerous”, and “toxic” and told by the charity Birthrights they would no longer be associating with me, for doing just that.

Since then, I’ve been ostracised by many midwives and breastfeeding experts, and even deplatformed as keynote speaker at an international conference - all this in spite of the fact that I’ve campaigned to improve birth for nearly a decade and I am the author of two of the UK’s bestselling guides to childbirth.

My crime was simply to push back against terms such as “birthing people” and the current drive to make language “gender neutral” - a move that is said to be more inclusive of those who don’t identify as women.

My argument is, and always has been, that everyone who births should be treated with the utmost respect, and called what they wish. But changing language at population level is less about respect, and more about capitulating with an ideology that says a person’s inner sense of gender is of more importance than their biological sex.

For example, if you say, “birthing people” in your policy documents, you are - perhaps without realising it - causing a shift in word definition.

Your word choice implies that not all people who give birth are women.

Changing the definition of woman impacts on women’s rights

But this is only true if you change the definition of woman from what it has always meant - an adult female person - to something new, a “gender identity”, that anyone can adopt or discard.

If you change the definition of “woman” in this way, it has a potential impact on women’s rights; for example, women-only spaces, sports, data collection, law and policy.

Feminist campaigners keep raising this concern, but are vilified or ignored.

Every day I see new examples of the word woman being erased, most notably the recent front cover of the Lancet, which used the term “bodies with vaginas”.

Recent guidance from the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) on baby sleep safety seemed to be yet another such example.

In a document intended to help midwives give advice on night-time parenting, they didn’t use the word “woman” or “mother” once.

Worse still, they chose the phrase “postnatal people” to refer to new mums in the hospital.

This kind of phrasing may include the tiny minority of women who don’t wish to be called women - but it excludes and dehumanises the vast majority who do.

Not only this, baby sleep advice is a great example of an area where a person’s sex can be directly relevant.

Breastfeeding - a solely female endeavour - cannot be ignored in the context of night-time parenting.

Many mothers decide to share a bed with their baby to make breastfeeding at night more manageable, and they need specific safety information which names them clearly and does not obscure or minimise their role by calling them “postnatal people”.

When I raised this with the RCM on Twitter, I didn’t expect a response. I was pretty sure I would be yet again written off as someone who at best, doesn’t understand “inclusivity”, or at worst, is “transphobic”.

But their swift apology and pledge to revise the document, was, to say the least, refreshing.

The tsunami of positive responses they have received to this gesture speaks volumes about how deeply women care about being erased from language.

Organisations who similarly release themselves from the grip of gender ideology can expect to be similarly applauded.

If more of them follow suit, we may look back on the RCM’s decision as a turning of the tide.

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