July 27, 2021 - 1:15pm

A “pregnant man” emoji is incoming. Designed by Emojipedia, it’s due to be released by the Unicode Consortium later this year. The final approval of all new emojis won’t take place until September, although the organisation says that draft lists of designs have been approved without modification.

Trans rights campaigners have long advocated for a depiction of gestating men and consider the release of the “pregnant man” emoji a recognition that transgender men and non-binary people can give birth — if they were born female. In their announcement, Emojipedia stated: “The above additions will mean that nearly all emojis can have a default gender neutral option, with choice to use a woman or man where relevant.”

Should anyone have a problem with this? Well, men cannot physically give birth. But then again, humans do not have literal dollar signs in their eyes, or zippers on their mouths, yet these emojis are in wide use. This is a legitimate argument — but it ignores the sinister undercurrent below the push to widen society’s understanding of pregnancy and childbirth by side-lining the material repercussions both have for women and girls, and the advocates campaigning for their rights.

Around the same time the “pregnant man” emoji was announced, the parallel plight of Milli Hill became widely known. Hill, a bestselling author and the founder of the Positive Birth Movement, was dropped by a charity after she challenged taboos around the idea of ‘pregnant men’.

Hill faced the wrath of the birthing community when she wrote on Instagram in November of last year: “I would challenge the term ‘birthing person’” and stated that the concept of “obstetric violence is violence against women”. The subsequent threats and abuse she received left her shaken. Speaking to UnHerd, Hill reflects:

“The pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding world is changing language across the board. Anyone who questions this is swiftly ejected from their professional body or attacked on social media. Many people working in maternity rights consider the push for inclusive language as a positive step and a way of being more accepting of people – which of course I support. But I don’t think they have thought through the implications of changing the definition of ‘woman’. They don’t necessarily realise that ‘being kind’ is going to have an impact on women’s hard-won rights.”
- Milli Hill

The context here is crucial. Worldwide, pregnancy and childbirth remain a life-or-death matter for a large number of women. The COVID pandemic has triggered an alarming increase of maternal deaths in some countries as many women and girls are kept away from hospitals. In May, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence published guidelines suggesting doctors should encourage labour induction at 39 weeks for all pregnant women of colour in the UK, a proposal that has been branded as “discriminatory” by the Royal College of Midwives.

There are genuine concerns about the way parts of the medical establishment treat women — particularly pregnant women of colour. These questions, and the realities of childbirth, risk being obscured under the guise of “inclusivity” when experts who speak in favour of material reality become victims of abuse.

Identity politics has led to a lot of meaningless performative gestures at the expense of substantive support for improving childbirth care, at its worst presenting a veneer of modernity to the age-old habit of erasing female bodies. If only they could make an emoji to articulate that.

Raquel Rosario Sánchez is a writer, researcher and campaigner from the Dominican Republic.