House of Lords peers falsely accuse medical council of ‘erasing’ words ‘women’ and ‘mother’

Baroness Hayter and General Medical Council

Peers in the House of Lords blasted a medical body for “erasing” the words ‘woman’ and ‘mother’ from its internal guidance – but a PinkNews investigation found that this is not the full story.

Anger was sparked over the General Medical Council’s (GMC) maternity and menopause policies for staff members, which outline, for example, what leave and pay staff are entitled to, safeguarding guidance and support available.  

Established back in 1858, the GMC is a public body that maintains the official register of the more than 374,000 doctors in the UK, setting standards for these medical professionals and the medical schools they attend, regularly evaluating their skills and removing doctors from the register when they breach patient safety. 

The policies in question are for staff who work for the GMC, rather than the doctors and medical professionals the body regulates. 

Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town, who became a life peer in 2010, asked the government on Tuesday (17 October) “what discussion they have held with the General Medical Council on its removal of the words ‘mother’ and ‘women’ from its internal guidance for pregnant or menopausal staff, and whether this reflects advice to doctors as to how to treat and describe patients”. 

Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town. (GOV)

In response to the baroness’s oral question, Lord Markham – the parliamentary under secretary of state at the department of health and social care – said the government had not had any discussions with the GMC on its “internal guidance for pregnant or menopausal staff”, noting the body is independent from the government. 

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Lord Markham went on to tell Baroness Hayter: “The government are clear that biological sex matters and that there are different health needs between the sexes.

“Removing language around biological sex has the potential for unintended and adverse health consequences.” 

The Labour peer, however, said she was unsatisfied by Lord Markham’s response, criticising him for saying “‘pregnant staff’ rather than ‘pregnant women’”. 

She went on ask: “How many mothers would have confidence in a doctor who thinks that men can have babies?”, before adding: “The minister should engage with the GMC and I ask him to do so, because although its internal guidance may have upset some of us, it regulates doctors and the language it uses matters in how it oversees, trains and interviews them. 

“I hope the government will take this a little more seriously.” 

At this, Lord Markham said the government was taking it “very seriously” and apologised to the baroness, who he said was “quite right to pick me up on that point”. 

Also during the debate, other peers called the GMC “unacceptable” and questioned Lord Markham on “how many male members of the GMC have given birth” – to which the House cheered and laughed. 

Polices are ‘person-centred’, GMC say

Following the debate, PinkNews approached the GMC to clarify when and if the words ‘woman’ and ‘mother’ had been specifically taken out of their internal policies. 

Sharing copies of the body’s maternity and menopause policies with PinkNews, a spokesperson for the GMC revealed the documents had not been amended to specifically remove those words. 

In the menopause document, which was published in 2021 and has not been updated since, “no wording relating to female descriptors has been removed”. 

The current format of the maternity policy has been in place for more than a decade and during that time only one change has been made, whereby in 2018 the GMC changed the term ‘surrogate mother’ to ‘surrogate’ and then to ‘surrogate parent’ in 2021.

The GMC confirmed that phrases included in the document – such as “staff members who are pregnant” – had been in the guidance for a number of years and were not new.

The GMC spokesperson also told PinkNews: “We have clearly titled policies for our staff, including maternity, paternity and adoption policies. We review these regularly in consultation with our staff to make sure they are inclusive and to reflect changes in legislation, allowances rates, and pension information.

“We draft our policies in a person-centred way, that directly addresses the reader.

“We engage regularly with MPs and peers on a range of issues by email, telephone or in person.” 

Controversy over ‘woke’ gender neutral language and the “erasure” of women has been growing amid increasing backlash to trans-inclusive policies and the wider trans community, led by mainstream media outlets and senior politicians.

In March, Oxfam found itself at the centre of a media storm after it published an updated version of its Inclusive Language Guide, which issues advice to staff on how to engage with different groups of people including people with a disability, sex workers and the LGBTQ+ community.  

The charity was lambasted by the mainstream press – with the Daily Mail dedicating its front page to the issue – for allegedly “erasing mothers and fathers” by suggesting the use of gender neutral terms in certain situations.  

In response, however, Oxfam confirmed to PinkNews that the guide is by no means “prescriptive” and is “intended to help authors communicate with the diverse range of people with which we work”. 

“We are disappointed that some people have decided to misrepresent the advice offered in the guide which clearly states that authors should respect the desires of those who want to be described as a mother or father,” a spokesperson for the charity added at the time.