by NICK SPENCER – AUSTRALIAN doctors are pushing back against gender-neutral and diverse language, warning it could lead to severe errors in medical procedures.
One hundred and twenty medical researchers, doctors, midwifery professors and senior clinicians signed a letter addressed to peak funding body the National Health & Medical Research Council (NHMRC) on January 1.
The letter warned that such ambiguous language would blur the lines between biological sex and gender identity.
They said non-binary language put female patients at risk, given that medical data was now being skewed in favour of biological men.
“Using ‘women’ with a gendered meaning, that is grouping males and females together, when considering healthcare provision or undertaking research, has risks,” the letter stated.
“Even when males and females experience the same disease, they may experience it very differently, irrespective of gender identity.”
The letter was prompted by a consultation paper from the NHMRC on the ethics of conducting medical research on pregnant women.
Another of the letter’s warnings is that medical professionals nationwide are facing institutional pressure to introduce gender-neutral language in research, practice and policy.
Advocates of gender-neutral language argue that its introduction is essential to prevent discrimination against transgender individuals or those who identify with a gender they were not biologically born into.
They contend that failure to include diverse pronouns and terms encompassing a wide variety of gender identities will deter certain demographics from seeking medical care or even entering some professions.
Melbourne-based immunologist Jessica Borger published a paper last June titled “From sex to biology: The case for gender-neutral language in science education”.
In her paper, Ms Borger articulated why she believes standard binary terms to denote gender are harmful.
“The use of gendered language in science can reinforce harmful societal stereotypes and contribute to the marginalisation of certain groups,” she wrote.
“For instance, the use of male pronouns when referring to doctors or researchers in scientific studies may perpetuate the idea that men are the dominant group in these fields, and that women are less capable or less involved.”
Ms Borger also outlined her recommendation for educators to teach people to use gender-neutral language.
“It is important for educators to teach the difference between the terms gender and sex and consider the use of gender-neutral language to avoid the use of gender-specific terms or pronouns, including ‘women and men’; ‘he and she’; ‘hers and his’, which refer to socially constructed roles and behaviours that should be avoided,” she added.
The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) – one of Australia’s most prominent health bodies – noted on its website the official distinction between sex and gender.
The research agency defines sex identity as derived from a person’s biological characteristics, including their chromosomes, hormones and reproductive organs.
Conversely, it defines gender identity as linked to a person’s social and cultural identity based on their life experiences.
The organisation asserts that both gender and sex identities are malleable and can change over the course of a person’s lifetime.
The AIHW also acknowledges that usage of “male and female” in its research reports will vary depending on where the data is sourced from.
This implies that the organisation’s definition of the terms male and female may change depending on whether the data provider classifies individuals based on gender or sex identity.
As for AIHW, their reports use both.
“In many of these instances, male or female may refer to either sex or gender, depending on the data source,” AIHW said.
“Most current data sources do not record sex and gender as separate concepts so it can be unclear which is the focus.”PC