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How false narratives used to control women’s bodily autonomy are now being used against trans people

How false narratives used to control women’s bodily autonomy are now being used against trans people


by Roe McDermott
29th Jun 2024

Both anti-choice and transphobic movements deploy narratives of regret to falsely claim that most women who have abortions and most people who transition come to regret their decision – but these are lies.

Last month, a ruling in the Arizona Supreme Court means very bad news for women living there. Arizona joins Georgia and Florida who have already enacted a 6 week ban on abortion and eleven more states who have enacted some kind of abortion ban in a post-Roe v. Wade world. The six-week ban is essentially a ban on abortion, as women will have less than two weeks after a missed period to even consider the possibility of pregnancy; take a pregnancy test; go to a doctor; come up with the funds to pay for an abortion; find a service provider; and have the abortion. For women who are on birth control that stops or significantly lessens their period, if their birth control fails, they may have no idea they are pregnant for months.

I myself have a Mirena coil. Having it inserted was utterly excruciating, but for someone who has had debilitatingly painful periods for two and a half decades, it’s been an absolute lifesaver. I rarely get my period, and when I do, it’s extremely light. If you asked me the date of my last period, I wouldn’t be able to tell you without checking my Notes app because I genuinely rarely think about it. It was recommended that I take pregnancy tests regularly just in case, which I have done precisely once in three years. I, like most sexually active women who are using any form of birth control, live my life assuming I am not pregnant. Arizona’s draconian six-week ban on abortion is relying on this assumption too, in order to prey on women who become pregnant accidentally and don’t immediately realise it, and force women to carry these unwanted pregnancies to term.

The rights and bodily autonomy of women and trans people are under attack across the world, and some of the methods being used to oppress, undermine and control women and trans people overlap.

Women aren’t the only people being targeted by American laws. In February, Florida revoked transgender residents’ ability to update their gender markers on driver’s licences and ID cards; Utah passed a bill banning transgender people from bathrooms corresponding to their gender; and Texas’ attorney general pressed a clinic in Georgia for medical records of transgender young people who used telehealth (a tool for providing long-distance healthcare) to obtain gender-affirming care there. In 2024 so far, 579 bills targeting transgender rights had been filed in the United States.

The rights and bodily autonomy of women and trans people are under attack across the world, and some of the methods being used to oppress, undermine and control women and trans people overlap. Both anti-choice and transphobic movements deploy narratives of regret to falsely claim that women who have abortions and people who transition come to regret their decision, and that laws are needed to “protect” women and trans people from these decisions.

In the media, particularly media in the U.K. and U.S.A, there has been a lot of false, fear-mongering headlines claiming that trans people who receive any form of gender-affirming care, including hormones and surgeries, often come to regret their decision. These arguments are being used to pathologise trans people and prevent and ban care for them. This regret narrative is a tried-and-tested method of undermining the rights and bodily autonomy of people, that has been used to prevent women from getting abortions for decades. The problem is, of course, that these repeatedly, consistently debunked, false narratives of “regret” that pretend to care about women and trans people are in fact ways of patriarchy exerting control.

To understand how regret narratives are currently being weaponised against trans people, we can look at how anti-choice groups have been misrepresenting data to suit their politics and oppressing women for decades now.

The term “post-abortion syndrome” was coined in 1981 by Vincent Rue, an anti-abortion advocate who stated that women who have abortions experience a form of post-traumatic stress disorder characterised by feelings of guilt, regret, anxiety and depression. Post-abortion syndrome has never been scientifically established, and the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association do not recognise it. Rue’s 2009 research showing a correlation between abortion and negative mental health has been widely disparaged by scientific and academic communities, who criticised the methods and the irreproducible findings. Nevertheless, anti-choice campaigns have found in Rue’s work a useful tool and frequently push the false claim that women often regret their abortions. This narrative is then used to impose bans on abortion, restrictive waiting periods for abortions, or deeply manipulative practices such as forcing women have mandatory ultrasounds and listen to foetal heartbeats before having an abortion.

This regret narrative is a tried-and-tested method of undermining the rights and bodily autonomy of people, that has been used to prevent women from getting abortions for decades.

In Ireland, there is currently a three-day waiting period for women who want abortions. This waiting period is not medically necessary and has never been justifiably explained by the Irish government – because there is no good reason for it. The three-day waiting period is the same as mandatory waiting periods in the United States, imposed on women under the assumption that women can’t be trusted to make their own decisions; to implicitly threaten women with the lingering thought of “consider this again because you may regret it”; and to delay women getting abortions, which may push some women beyond the legal time frame in which abortion is legal.

Anti-choice campaigners have long been crafting anti-abortion legislation around the idea that women regret abortions – when research shows the opposite.

A 2015 peer-reviewed study exploring emotional responses to abortion showed that out of 667 U.S. women questioned by researchers over three years, only five per cent felt negative emotions of anger, regret, guilt and sadness. The “overwhelming majority” felt happiness and “high levels of decision rightness and relief” – regardless of whether they had the abortion early on, or later into their pregnancy. This study that has long been accepted by scientists as being accurate and representative, is consistently ignored by anti-choice campaigners who prefer to cherry-pick their facts and push their anti-choice agenda.

Anti-choice campaigners also ignore the reasons that a very small number of women express feelings of regret after an abortion, which are almost always about external factors and the anti-choice stigma that surrounds them, rather than the abortion itself. Multiple studies show that people who regret having abortions describe the negative parts of their experience as being a lack of social support, losing their romantic relationships and feeling stigmatised for their decision – not the actual procedure.

Of course, while advocates who employ regret as a deterrent to abortion claim that they’re concerned for the mental well-being of women, they don’t advocate for more post-abortion support or mental health services, nor do they seek to challenge the stigma that may also invoke feelings of guilt or depression in women who have abortions. People who weaponise regret narratives aren’t seeking to understand or improve the reality of women’s experiences. They’re seeking to control the narrative, and in so doing, to frighten women out of having abortions under the threat of a life filled with turmoil. And when they can’t use intimidation tactics to prevent women having abortions, they’ll use anti-choice legislation.

It’s also important to note that at the heart of this abortion-as-regret is the idea that women are not only incapable of making decisions, but they also must be protected from specific, assumed emotions – real or merely possible. And while anti-choice legislators claim that they are trying to protect women, making laws around people’s bodies under the guise of preventing even the possibility of negative emotions isn’t protection – it’s policing.

Many decisions frequently taken by adults that could potentially invoke feelings of regret – cheating on a spouse, for example – do not attract the same level of attention or legislative campaigning. But when abortion is involved, the guise of compassionate control acts as a seductively modern justification for using law to impose motherhood on women.

People who weaponise regret narratives aren’t seeking to understand or improve the reality of women’s experiences. They’re seeking to control the narrative, and in so doing, to frighten women out of having abortions under the threat of a life filled with turmoil.

They aren’t trying to care for women. They are trying to control them. And now they’re using the same tactics on trans people.

Endless headlines, opinion columns and bad faith arguments from transphobic people argue that some trans people regret receiving gender-affirming care, and use this regret narrative to argue against trans rights and healthcare. Just as with women and abortions, the research repeatedly shows that regret is extremely rare; an outlier experience; and when felt, is often caused by external factors and stigma.

The narrative of concern is used to conceal the bodily control that lies at the heart of these arguments – this is shown by the lack of concern over adults’ higher levels of regret over other medical decisions.

For example, studies have shown that 99.7% of trans people who had undergone gender affirmation surgery experienced a degree of satisfaction with the outcome, so a 0.3% regret rate. Knee replacement surgery has a dissatisfactory rate of up to 30%, and elective rhinoplasty has a regret rate of 40% – yet no-one is campaigning to ban knee replacement surgery or nose jobs to prevent people from experiencing regret. Lawmakers do fundamentally understand that adults are allowed make decisions over their bodies and also understand that normal emotions like regret that some people may experience (momentarily, permanently or alongside other contrasting emotions) are not something to be legislated around.

And yet these regret narratives do prevent people from receiving the care they need.

A 2023 peer-reviewed study in the Journal of America Medical Association has shown that overwhelmingly, trans and non-binary people who have top surgery express extremely low rates of decisional regret, and that they express extremely high satisfaction rates that are borne out over time. The paper even states that regret levels are so low that the data on regret cannot be analysed. But the paper also notes that these lived experiences are overwhelmingly ignored and overlooked by politicians as well as physicians, and these weaponised regret narratives can prevent trans and non-binary people from being approved for gender affirming care.

Anti-choice campaigners like to shout loudly about people feeling regret after receiving gender affirming care – while conveniently remaining silent about the specific causes of regret. Similarly to women who experience regret after abortions, the reason for feelings of regret are overwhelmingly due to external factors and stigma. Of the incredibly small number of people who detransition, over 82% did so because of external pressures and stigma, such as rejection from family, and discrimination in education or employment. Many people who detransition only do so temporarily due to these pressures, before returning to their lives as trans people – but their choice to ultimately live as trans people never features in right-wing narratives about detransition regret.

Like women and abortions, the research is overwhelming and unequivocal – women and trans people know what is right for them, and when allowed to make autonomous choices about their body and receive care and support, they are overwhelmingly happy with their decisions. And yet the paternalistic, bad faith, disingenuous and wholly inaccurate narratives around regret are weaponised in order to control the rights of bodies of women and trans people alike.

Transphobia and the recent increase in anti-trans rhetoric and legislation not only highlights how much patriarchy relies on controlling gender expression, bodies and the rights of marginalised people to uphold rigid power structures – it also highlights how the struggles of women and trans people are linked, as some of the same tactics are used to strip all of us of our rights and autonomy.

As cis women have witnessed for decades, oppression and control are often hidden behind a pretence of care and concern. We need to fight it when it is used against us – and when it is used against trans people. Through solidarity, we can all fight against the patriarchal forces that want to control us. We will never regret standing together for our rights, our bodies, and our lives.

Photography by Unsplash.