issue: preventing homosexuality and gender nonconformity


As we researched into the use of prenatal dex for CAH, Anne Tamar-Mattis of Advocates for Informed Choice, Ellen Feder of American University, and I became increasingly disturbed by suggestions in the presentations and publications by Maria New that prenatal dex could be used to prevent “behavioral masculinization,” including tomboyism, interest in male-typical hobbies and occupations, and homosexuality, bisexuality, and transgenderism.

Ellen Feder, Anne Tamar-Mattis, and I wrote up the evidence for this in a post for Bioethics Forum. You can read that post, with the evidence named, here.

As the media picked up this story, Dr. New apparently denied to reporters that she was interested in preventing homosexuality in the womb. We are not sure how she can deny it. Besides what we quoted from New’s own words in the Bioethics Forum post, Anne Tamar-Mattis has found numerous additional pieces of evidence that some of New's grant applications to the NIH specifically named as an interest seeing whether prenatal dex could reduce "behavioral masculinization" in girls with CAH, including in terms of making them more likely to turn out to be wives (of men) and mothers.

Here are just two of several relevant passages found by Tamar-Mattis in the grants we FOIA’ed:

  1. (a)"The overall objective is to fill the gap of knowledge about the long-term consequences of early-prenatal DEX treatment on childhood development on the one hand, and the success of DEX in suppressing behavioral masculinization in the sub-sample of girls with definitive congenital adrenal hyperplasia on the other." [Scan available here: 12.97 suppressing masculinization.pdf]

  1. (b)"The spectrum of behavioral effects ranges from mild or marked tomboyish behavior of childhood to increased adolescent/adult bisexuality and lesbianism; through full male identification with request for sex reassignment surgery and legal gender change in adolescence or adulthood...In addition, the genital abnormalities and often multiple corrective surgeries needed affect social interaction, self image, romantic and sexual life, and fertility.  As a consequence, many of these patients, and the majority of women with the salt-losing variant, appear to remain childless and single. Preventive prenatal dexamethasone exposure is expected to improve this situation." [Scan available here: expected to improve.jpg]

Yes, indeed, it’s true: our government (through the NIH) has been supporting grants aimed at seeing whether prenatal dex can “successfully” prevent homosexuality, tomboyism, and so forth.

You can see scanned pages from the FOIA’ed documents by going to this page.

It is worth understanding the background to this. For decades, clinician-researchers treating children with atypical sex (including atypical sex caused by CAH) have been using that population of children to see whether clinicians can use medical interventions--surgeries, hormones, and psychological counseling--to cause these children to turn out straight and gender conforming. In this sense, New is part of a long tradition of clinician-researchers who have been interested in using these children--who are called by some of these clinicians “experiments of nature”--to see if they can engineer gender and sexual orientation. This is all part of their interest in the nature-nurture questions regarding gender and sexual orientation.

To read more historical background to this, you could see the last chapter of my book, Hermaphrodites and the Medical Invention of Sex, or read John Colapinto’s excellent book, As Nature Made Him. Colapinto’s book documents how John Money of Johns Hopkins University used David Reimer and other children in this kind of experimentation. It is worth knowing that the main psychologist on New’s follow-up grants (like those quoted above) is Heino Meyer-Bahlburg of Columbia University. Meyer-Bahlburg trained with Money. So it is all part of an ongoing problematic history.

But seriously, in 2010, are we still supposed to put up with this?

I want to be clear:

  1. I fully support the academic freedom of scientists who wish to learn more about the origins of gendered interests, gendered behaviors, gender roles, gender identity, and sexual orientation of all stripes.

  2. I do not think our tax dollars should be used to see if doctors can “successfully” make kids turn out straight and gender-conforming.

  3. And I certainly don’t think such children should be subjected to high-risk experimentation, especially when their parents have not been told the truth about the experiments and their risks.

These children are not “experiments of nature,” they are human children who are turned into experiments by people like John Money and Maria New.

I’ve written at Psychology Today about why it’s a bad idea to try to engineer the sexual orientation of your children. You can read that here.

Go to main “issues” page.

(Written by Alice Dreger; copyright Alice Dreger, 2010)