Breeding Out Tomboys

So what do you call it when a female doctor walks into a gene lab & doses all the pregnant mothers with a drug to prevent their daughters from wanting to work in “masculine” careers? Hypocrisy? Insanity? Female chauvinism? Pulling up the ladder under you?

I call it bullshit, but it’s happening. Dr. Maria New, an endocrinologist, is trying to prevent CAH in female infants, but as it turns out, the drug that prevents this masculinizing intersex condition in XX infants seems also seems to decrease incidents of lesbianism and bisexuality while simultaneously decreasing girls’ other “natural” impulses like playing with dolls and fantasizing about pregnancy and childbirth.

(Do little girls fantasize about pregnancy & childbirth? I had no idea. I never did, and I did play with dolls.)

From an article by Alice Dreger and two colleagues:

And it isn’t just that many women with CAH have a lower interest, compared to other women, in having sex with men. In another paper entitled “What Causes Low Rates of Child-Bearing in Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia?” Meyer-Bahlburg writes that “CAH women as a group have a lower interest than controls in getting married and performing the traditional child-care/housewife role. As children, they show an unusually low interest in engaging in maternal play with baby dolls, and their interest in caring for infants, the frequency of daydreams or fantasies of pregnancy and motherhood, or the expressed wish of experiencing pregnancy and having children of their own appear to be relatively low in all age groups.”

In the same article, Meyer-Bahlburg suggests that treatments with prenatal dexamethasone might cause these girls’ behavior to be closer to the expectation of heterosexual norms: “Long term follow-up studies of the behavioral outcome will show whether dexamethasone treatment also prevents the effects of prenatal androgens on brain and behavior.”

In a paper published just this year in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, New and her colleague, pediatric endocrinologist Saroj Nimkarn of Weill Cornell Medical College, go further, constructing low interest in babies and men – and even interest in what they consider to be men’s occupations and games – as “abnormal,” and potentially preventable with prenatal dex:

So dex might have prevented Dr. Maria New, which right about now looks like it would have been a good idea.

I’d also like to point out right about here that, for the record, for all the people who pooh-pooh non-trans, gender variant women when we talk about being “third sexed” along with trans women, that it looks like us dykey, tomboy, uppity types are the first on the chopping block.

Still & all, Dan Savage asks an important question:

Gay people have been stressing out about the day arriving when scientists developed treatments to prevent homosexuality . . . Well, here we are—the day appears to have arrived. Now what are we going to do about it?

So what are we going to do about it?

5 Replies to “Breeding Out Tomboys”

  1. What can we do about it?

    Write angry blogs? Protest? Call our senators and congress-people and demand legislation to end this Frankenstein pseudo-science?

    And cross our fingers that our reproductive rights fare better than our employment, marital, or military service rights?

    Sorry if that sounds snarky, but my questions are sincere; how do we get people to care?

  2. There’s obviously a whole lot that’s evil and scary about this approach. Leaving that aside for a moment, if they can get someone to reproduce who would not do so otherwise, then they help to maintain that person’s genes in the population. In the long run that should give us *more* of such people.

    Back to evil and scary: I hope that Alice Dreger or Helen Boyd or Dan Savage (or *all three* — how awesome would that be?) can use their visibility to focus our collective outrage in a useful direction.

  3. To me, technically speaking, this has the smell of the sort of research announcement that won’t prove effective in reality.

    It’s incredibly offensive that anybody would even want to try, though. “Old-fashioned browbeating isn’t enough to compel your daughter to obey her natural feminine inclinations? Try screwing with her hormones prenatally! Remember, Mom and Dad, when it comes to enforcing what’s natural, there’s no such thing as going too far.”

    I still say it’s all a sting operation to identify evil parents.

    Anyway… do groups like the AMA have guidelines about what methods and purposes are acceptable for intervening in fetal development? If so, how binding are they? Surely, if there were some sort of Medical Supreme Court, they would have to rule this Unhippocratic.

  4. Advocates for Informed Choice is a non-profit organization advocating for the legal and human rights of children with intersex conditions or differences of sex development, like the ones in this story. We work in collaboration with bioethicists, doctors, parents, affected adults, and many others. If you are interested in taking action to help protect these children, and to be sure that possible human rights violations are investigated, please join our Facebook page at or sign up for our Twitter feed at You can also donate to support our work at

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