If you haven’t been pregnant, you’d be forgiven for thinking the language of pregnancy is all baby bumps, bundles of joy, and comparisons to variously sized fruits. But in the doctor’s office, it’s a different story. The medical lexicon for moms-to-be can be downright harsh. Case in point: the phrase geriatric pregnancy, which, until recently, was used to refer to anyone pregnant after their 35th birthday.
This unfortunate term is thought to stem from a concept that dates back to the 1970s, when amniocentesis, a procedure to screen for genetic abnormalities, was becoming routine. That year, the National Institutes of Health identified 35 as the age at which the risk that the test would harm the fetus was roughly equal to the chance of a fetus being born with Down’s syndrome. In the four-plus decades since, advancements in screening technology have made that calculation essentially obsolete—and the idea that your 35th birthday is some sort of cliff-of-no-return absurd. Moms, for their part, always hated the phrase: When Jamila Larson, a 49-year-old mother of two in Hyattsville, Maryland, was called “geriatric” by a midwife in 2011, “it felt like a gut punch,” she told me.
Though you’ll still hear it occasionally, this term has (thankfully) been on its way out for a while. One reason is changing demographics. As more and more women give birth after turning 35—in 2020, about one in five babies in the United States was born to a mom who had passed that birthday—labeling them as particularly “old” no longer makes sense. Last August, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) announced that its preferred terminology is now “pregnancy at age 35 years or older”—or, even better, that doctors and researchers should simply indicate patients’ age in five-year increments starting from the age of 35.
This is how progress works: When a medical term outlasts its usefulness, we thank it for its service and move on. So it may surprise you to learn that a litany of dubiously appropriate and medically inaccurate words are still used to describe pregnancy and childbirth. Over the past decade, the field of medicine has acknowledged that language has the power to perpetuate bias among doctors, and worked to scrub its vocabulary of such terms, including schizophrenic (which reduces a person to a stigmatized disease), drug abuser (which reduces a person to their addiction), and sickler (a derogatory term for someone with sickle-cell disease). And yet, doctors continue to describe women’s bodies using charged terms such as hostile uterus, incompetent cervix, and habitual aborter—words that arguably sound worse than the now-shunned geriatric pregnancy. Why do some words evolve, while others insist on haunting moms’ medical charts like ghosts of medicine past?
[Read: The culture war over ‘pregnant people’]
Geriatric pregnancy got a spurt of publicity in 2021, when the makers of the fertility and motherhood app Peanut turned their attention to the minefield of pregnancy language. After a video of a distraught woman whose doctor told her she would be “geriatric” if she were to get pregnant garnered attention on the app, Peanut launched a campaign to come up with more neutral-sounding alternatives to existing medical language. That April, they released a glossary of proposed replacements. Still, more attention from the public doesn’t always translate into institutional action: Although 20,000 people have downloaded Peanut’s glossary, there hasn’t been any official movement within medicine to do away with the original terms.
Across the U.S., doctors are still doling out diagnoses that sound not only archaic, but downright weird. Many of these terms are enshrined in the global catalog of diseases that doctors use to report procedures to insurance companies, known as the ICD-11. The latest version of that glossary, released in 2022, still includes the phrase elderly primigravida, which is basically a synonym for geriatric pregnancy. In 2016, during her second pregnancy, Larson’s notes read “elderly multigravida”—meaning she was both over 35 and had been pregnant before.
Or consider incompetent cervix, a term that is in both the ACOG dictionary and the ICD-11. Really, it means a pregnant person’s cervix has dilated before the pregnancy is complete, which can lead to premature birth or miscarriage. Meena Khandelwal, an ob-gyn and the director of research for obstetrics and gynecology at Cooper University Health Care in Camden, New Jersey, told me she avoids using the phrase in front of patients (she sometimes uses weak cervix instead, though she isn’t sure that it’s much better). But because incompetent cervix is entrenched in insurance codes and her hospital’s record-keeping system, the phrase is likely to show up in patients’ notes anyway.
[Read: She got pregnant. His body changed too.]
To be sure, communicating that the cervix has opened early is crucial; it prompts doctors to monitor the situation using ultrasound, to temporarily sew the cervix closed, or to try another treatment. Providers need to be able to inform one another about patients quickly and clearly; one could argue that is a much more important function of medical jargon than protecting patients’ feelings. The point of language evolution is not to make words so gentle that they become meaningless.
But in many cases, the existing language is less clear and precise than gentler alternatives. For example, failure to progress—a general term meaning that labor has lasted longer than expected—says nothing about the reason the labor is slow. And calling a patient “geriatric” offers less information than simply stating whether she is in her 30s, 40s, or 50s. The outdated words even have the potential to worsen patient outcomes: a 2018 study on physician bias found that when doctors read stigmatizing language in a patient’s charts, they tended to have more negative attitudes toward the patient and treat their pain less aggressively. Besides, “incompetent” is a strange way to describe whether a cervix is open or closed. It makes it sound like this organ should be worried about its next annual review.
This odd quality unites many pregnancy-related terms: They make it sound as if the pregnant person, or their body part, could have chosen a different path. When you are told your uterus is being “hostile” or are accused of “failure to progress,” it’s hard not to feel like you’ve somehow failed the assignment. “It sends a message of ‘You could be normal, but you’re not. You’re not working with us here,’” says Kristen Syrett, an associate professor of linguistics at Rutgers University. Even geriatric pregnancy, which doesn’t explicitly apply blame, seems to suggest that a mom-to-be has knowingly brought more risk upon her unborn child by choosing pregnancy “later” in life.
[Janice Wolly: My first pregnancy]
Many moms told Peanut that the most devastating label they encountered was habitual aborter. That term usually refers to someone who experiences multiple miscarriages before 20 weeks of pregnancy, a condition that affects 1 to 2 percent of women. (Its cousin is spontaneous abortion, which means such a miscarriage has happened once). From a purely medical perspective, abortion refers to any procedure that terminates a pregnancy, and includes procedures to empty the womb after a miscarriage. But in layman’s terms, it has come to mean a chosen termination of a pregnancy. That, plus the implication that aborting is a bad habit you can’t seem to break, made the term feel particularly inappropriate. “It’s really horrific if you think about it,” says Somi Javaid, an ob-gyn and the founder of the health-care company HerMD, who consulted on the Peanut project.
This sense of blame becomes more acute when you consider that for many people, reproductive organs are intimately tied to a sense of identity and self-worth—at least compared with, say, the kidneys. In the context of wanting a child, it’s difficult to hear that your uterus is “hostile” or your cervix is “incompetent” without thinking that those terms apply to your whole self. Even physicians can be taken aback: When Javaid was in her 20s, her own doctor deemed her “infertile” in her notes on account of her “old” uterus—meaning that its lining had thinned, a side effect from a fertility medication she was taking. “It felt like being slapped in the face,” she told me. “The impact of the word was not muted by my knowledge at all.”
Medical terms can, and do, change. But usually the field is responding to larger shifts in the culture, rather than leading the charge. That’s what happened with the phrase pregnant women, which organizations including the ACLU and the CDC have been incrementally phasing out in favor of pregnant people, a term that has sparked vigorous debate about inclusive language and feminism. Last February, ACOG followed suit, announcing that it would “move beyond the exclusive use of gendered language” to better encompass the fact that people of all genders can become pregnant.
[Helen Lewis: Why I’ll keep saying ‘pregnant women’]
With geriatric pregnancy, the change was likely more bottom-up, starting with doctors themselves. After all, for many, it was personal: The length and intensity of medical training increases the odds that doctors will have children later than other women—that they will be, in their own language, geriatric moms, says Monica Lypson, a vice dean at Columbia University’s medical school who researches equity and inclusion. Lypson was deemed “geriatric” when she was pregnant at age 36—a choice of words she found “jarring” as a patient.
Perhaps because incompetent cervix, habitual aborter, and the like refer to conditions that aren’t so common, many providers don’t realize just how hurtful they can be. Ariel Lefkowitz, an internal-medicine physician who cares for patients with pregnancy complications in Toronto, told me that he used to think of failure to progress the same way as he thought of kidney failure or heart failure. He didn’t notice the negative connotations until his wife, Sarah Friedlander, started training to be a birth educator and pointed them out. Now he sees that “it’s a lot more loaded, it’s a lot more personal,” he said.
That realization pushed him to think harder about the bias embedded in medical language in other fields, such as failure to cope. “We’re so medicalized and supposedly neutral and in this clinical environment,” said Lefkowitz, who in 2021 co-wrote an editorial in the journal Obstetric Medicine on the importance of inclusive language in obstetrics. “It’s very easy to become numb to the ridiculous ways in which we speak.”
The outdated terms that are currently stuck in the ICD-11, doctors’ offices, and the pages of medical journals may yet change. More doctors are recognizing that how patients perceive their words can have real impacts on health outcomes, says Julia Raney, a primary-care provider for adolescents who has created workshops on using mindful language in clinical settings. Accordingly, medicine is moving toward more person-centered care, including a focus on concrete risks rather than on blame and stereotypes. For instance, in her work with teens, Raney will note that they have a BMI in the 95th percentile rather than refer to them as simply “obese.” The goal is not to shield the patient from reality, but to better define their medical needs. Like ACOG’s move to designate moms as “35–39” or “40–44” rather than “of advanced maternal age,” this has the double benefit of being both less judgmental and more medically precise.
[Anya E. R. Prince: I tried to keep my pregnancy secret]
Doctors also have new reasons to be careful with their language. Since April 2021, an “open notes” law has given patients the right to freely and electronically access just about everything their doctors write about them. While the rule is still largely unknown to patients, open notes can make doctors more conscious (and, sometimes, anxious) about how what they write could affect their patients. “I think we’re all aware of that when we write anything,” Stephen Lapinsky, an editor in chief of the journal Obstetric Medicine, told me. This increased transparency, he said, might just be the kick medicine needs to accelerate the pace of language change and do away with terms like incompetent cervix once and for all.