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Words matter: It’s time to retire ‘hysterectomy’

At least some members of the medical profession are advocating for a change in terminology.

REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

I had a uterectomy. Of course, for the surgeon, it was a hysterectomy. I, however, refuse to use a term based on 19th-century pseudo-science that reduces women’s righteous anger, rage, and outrage to the functioning of our uterus.

Didn’t you always wonder if “hysterical” is related to “hysterectomy”? I was an outraged young feminist when I first encountered this relationship through the pioneering work of historians Deirdre English and Barbara Ehrenreich, and the Boston Women’s Health Collective, authors of “Our Bodies, Ourselves.” Four decades later, I feel the same outrage bubbling up when I hear health professionals, of all genders, tell me about my “hysterectomy.” Will that make me less hysterically funny, I want to ask?

I am happy to report that at least some members of the medical profession are advocating for change in terminology. In a comment published about a year ago, researchers Maria Gomez, Nada Majernikova, and Ger T Rijkers make the case that “hysterectomy” should be “completely and immediately removed from the medical nomenclature and vocabulary.” Instead, they propose the term “uterectomy,” which is not entirely new to the medical language and has the advantage of making it easier for women with no medical background to understand the connection between their uterus and the operation performed to remove it.

Language changes as our knowledge and understanding evolve, in medicine (as Gomez et al. indicate) and in social movements. Writing in “Reproductive Justice: An Introduction,” Loretta Ross and Rickie Solinger, who, like me come from the tradition of “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” have acknowledged that even the use of “women’s health” marginalizes the growing number of transgender and gender non-conforming people who get pregnant and give birth. So I use the word “women” advisedly.

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Beyond language, disparities affecting women

I am well aware that, as a white, educated, cisgender person with union-negotiated health benefits, I can afford to be outraged by language. Yet I am even more outraged by the horrifying health disparities that afflict women, particularly indigenous women, women of color, and queer folks, in the U.S. and all over the globe. We can simply start with poverty, itself a barrier to good health. According to a United Nations report, one of the deepest roots of impoverishment is “gender discrimination, which imposes a disproportionate burden on women.” While both men and women suffer in poverty, sexism results in far fewer resources for women. As a result, “they are likely to be the last to eat, the ones least likely to access healthcare, and routinely trapped in time-consuming, unpaid domestic tasks.” And these tasks include caring for children women are forced to bear due to lack of protection against rape and lack of access to reproductive knowledge, contraceptives, and abortions.

Colette Hyman
Colette Hyman
These factors, in particular, drive gendered health disparities. While the Affordable Care Act reduced the number of women in the United States without health insurance, the number who have no access to reproductive services increased by 5%, or one million individuals, between 2010 and 2014, dates for which the most recent data are available. Of course, this does not factor in recent cuts to funding for Title X of the Public Health Service Act, the only federal program devoted specifically to supporting family planning services, which has long been a target of right-wing assaults on women’s reproductive health.

What’s more, conservative policies limiting access to abortion services in many states have reduced the number of facilities performing abortions in large swaths of the nation. As of 2017, 39% of women lived in counties without abortion providers, requiring increasingly lengthy and costly travel to receive abortion care. Like cuts to Title X funding, conservative assaults on abortion providers and the resulting closing of clinics disproportionately fall on the backs of poor and low-income women.

A reminder of outdated notions

Given these daunting material barriers, why does a single word matter? It matters because each time health care professionals talk about a “hysterectomy,” they remind themselves, and those seeking care from them, that women are “hysterical” and therefore cannot be trusted to make the right decisions for themselves. That they need cisgender men to tell them how to dress, how to behave, and, yes, how to use and not use their bodies, especially their reproductive organs.

Of course, changing medical vocabulary won’t erase sexism and patriarchy. However, as feminists have been saying for decades, if men bore children, abortions would be as freely available as flu shots. And of course, if men had uteruses, the surgical removal of this organ would be called by its anatomically correct name: a uterectomy.

Colette Hyman has been teaching U.S. history at Winona State University for 29 years; she has been an outraged feminist for 45 years.


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