Emily Carver is Head of Media at the Institute of Economic Affairs.
It came as a pleasant surprise last week to hear the Prime Minister acknowledge that the ‘basic facts of biology remain overwhelmingly important’ when it comes to distinguishing between a man and a woman.
Amid the political row over transgender rights, what should be an unremarkable statement instantly made headlines.
As the country faces the worst cost-of-living squeeze in recent history, and war in Europe rages, it is an utterly ludicrous state of affairs that our politicians are rendered tongue-tied when asked the simple question: what is a woman?
In a recent radio interview, even the Chancellor was made to look foolish when he refused to provide a definition for the word ‘woman’, instead referring to the Prime Minister’s recent comments in Parliament.
Failing to either repeat Boris Johnson’s words or give his own answer, Rishi Sunak’s equivocation came across to many observers as an attempt to dodge the question.
Of course, he is just the latest in a litany of high-profile politicians either outright to refuse to define what a woman is or to obfuscate for so long that he or she ends up failing to answer the question altogether.
Sir Keir Starmer refused to answer whether a woman can have male genitalia whilst Anneliese Dodds, shadow minister for women and equalities, failed to define a woman, instead suggesting that it depends on the ‘context’. And Yvette Cooper declined to go down that ‘rabbit hole’. Across the pond, the situation is even more dire.
It’s shameful that we’ve got to the stage as a society, where such a question can now be used to entrap interviewees of all political stripes. This serves no one; not those women who are concerned that their sex-based rights are being undermined, nor transwomen, the majority of whom I suspect would prefer to live their lives without this debate dominating the headlines and airwaves.
But this is what happens when our political class fail for so long to address the clear conflicts that have arisen between transgender rights and women’s rights, conflicts which are in large part down to the incoherence of the legislation we have in place.
It’s also what happens when people feel pressured to deny reality in favour of dogma.
When Starmer equivocated over the definition of a woman, and said ‘transwomen are women’, he was legally correct – the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) 2004 does allow for transgender women to be legally recognised as female, even without having undergone ‘sex reassignment surgery’. At the same time, the Equality Act 2010 sets out legal provisions to restrict access to women-only spaces based on biological sex, rather than gender identity.
It’s easy to see how confusion arises, and why Dodds said ‘context’ matters when it comes to defining what a woman is. Legally, it does. And the parameters for when biological sex overrides gender identity are unclear.
The consequences of this messy legislation – and the dogma that accompanies it – have long been flagged by women’s rights groups. But their concerns have too often been shunned or called out as ‘transphobic’.
We’ve all seen the public treatment of high-profile women who have raised legitimate concerns over sex-based rights, particularly in Scotland, where the Scottish Government plans to reform the GRA to allow for self-ID, which would allow people to change their legal gender without the approval of doctors and officials.
In our universities, bullying tactics have inhibited rational debate. Academics have been labelled TERFs and subjected to student-led smear campaigns and demands for their resignation. Women such as Maya Forstater have lost their jobs for their gender-critical views.
It’s clear that the confusion is manifesting itself in our public institutions. We’ve seen the NHS invite “all women and people with a cervix” to have a smear test; NHS trusts have adopted “gender inclusive language” for their maternity services, replacing breast-feeding with “chest feeding” and “mother” with “birthing parent”.
Further, it was reported this week that some are even asking male cancer patients if they are pregnant before undergoing scans, after the Government removed the word “female” from the law governing medical procedures and replaced it with “individuals”.
Corporates have demonstrated their diversity and inclusion credentials by using the term “people who menstruate”. Some schools have even introduced unisex toilets for ‘inclusivity’, which understandably female students have found intolerable.
And the use of the term ‘cisgender’ to describe biological women is now embedded in common parlance. The BBC has failed numerous times to report gender identity accurately, even for crimes of a sexual nature.
Taken together, many women understandably perceive these developments as an affront to women’s rights and an erosion or dilution of what it means to be a woman.
It’s depressing that it’s taken the clear injustice of American transgender swimmer Lia Thomas’ victory at the NCAA to bring the issue firmly to the fore of public debate. Some may wish to dismiss concerns as ‘hysteria’, but this line of attack increasingly smacks of misogyny. It is no exaggeration that the integrity of women’s sports is at severe risk. Women’s sports which are, by definition, exclusive to females, are no longer so.
Transgender cyclist Emily Bridges is set to compete in the National Omnium Championships alongside Dame Laura Kenny, the five-time Olympic champion. Having previously set a junior men’s record, Emily will compete against biological women. If she storms to victory as Lia Thomas did, it will be hard to argue that inclusion has not trumped fairness in women’s sports.
It’s clear that in key areas, women’s and transgender rights are in conflict. It’s time that the Government stop denying biology, admit these problems exist, and commit to resolving them – it may well prove a vote-winner.