Debbie Hayton

Why is the NHS erasing women?

Why is the NHS erasing women?
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Cervical cancer and ovarian cancer only affect women. So why has the NHS been quietly erasing the word ‘women’ from information pages on its official website?

According to the Mail, NHS advice pages on these conditions were edited at the beginning of the year to remove references to the word ‘woman’.

Last year, women seeking information about cervical cancer were told that, ‘cervical cancer develops in a woman’s cervix (the entrance to the womb from the vagina). It mainly affects sexually active women aged between 30 and 45.’ But in 2022, the advice reads, ‘cervical cancer is a cancer that is found anywhere in the cervix, [and] the cervix is the opening between the vagina and the womb (uterus).’

Similarly, women looking for information online were previously told that ‘Ovarian cancer, or cancer of the ovaries, is one of the most common types of cancer in women.’ Now they are only informed by the health service that ‘Anyone with ovaries can get ovarian cancer’.

The health service’s cancer advice and guidance is extensive, and rightly so. Women concerned about their health need to know about symptoms, causes, tests and treatment, and where to get help and support. But, crucially, they need to know whether or not the guidance applies to them. If this obfuscation of reality was hidden in some obscure academic paper, it might be forgivable – or at least ignorable – but the NHS has a duty of care to a wide audience, not all of whom might know that the information is aimed specifically at women.

Interestingly, the equivalent pages on men’s health have not been edited in the same way. Those searching for information on prostate cancer are told quite simply that, ‘Most cases develop in men aged 50 or older.’ No chances are taken with testicular cancer: the word, ‘men’ appears eight times on one page.

Women’s health, therefore, seems to be an ideological playing field that men’s health is not. In the guidance the word ‘woman’ has generally been culled, with two notable exceptions on another page of the website, which explains that: ‘Anyone with a cervix can get cervical cancer. This includes women, trans men, non-binary people, and intersex people with a cervix.’ and, ‘Anyone with ovaries can get ovarian cancer. This includes women, trans men, non-binary people and intersex people with ovaries.’

But by framing the advice in this way the NHS appears to be re-defining women as a subgroup of people with cervixes or ovaries. How that helps anyone is hard to fathom.

While some women might just roll their eyes at the lunacy on display, the consequences may be profound for some women who speak English as a second language.

Meanwhile, the inclusion of non-binary people – whoever they are and however they might identify – is a political rather than medical distinction. There are two distinct groups of people within this self-defined demographic: those with cervixes and those with prostates. They are not the same, certainly where reproductive health is at stake. The fantasy world of political activists should have no place in medicine, where reality cannot be so easily ignored.

Meanwhile, intersex people must wonder – once again – what any of this has to do with them. In particular, why ‘intersex people with a cervix [or ovaries]’ are somehow not the same as women in the mind of the NHS.

Whoever re-wrote these pages has a powerful impact on the way in which we define men and women. The NHS is a trusted source of information across the country, for both individuals and organisations. When I taught Critical Thinking, I explained to my students how to assess the quality of sources, and the NHS scored highly.

The power exerted by that editor, therefore, is likely to permeate deeper into society than this one piece of guidance. Other people charged with the task of developing information, guidance or health advice will feel justified in relying heavily on the NHS, or even quoting it verbatim. After all, this is the NHS.

Meanwhile slowly – or maybe not so slowly – the word woman is becoming erased. 

Those in the NHS who signed this guidance off, perhaps blissfully unaware of what they were agreeing to, should in my view revise these pages as a matter of urgency. The NHS might have taken on board the LGBT rainbow for its branding and badges, but it must think critically before assuming the thinking of this particular strand of activism. Because where human bodies are concerned, human biology still matters, and we need clear labels to define the two sexes: women and men.

Written byDebbie Hayton

Debbie Hayton is a teacher and journalist

Topics in this articleSociety