SD blogger Sierra reported last week that Maria New and her colleagues at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine have been experimenting with an off-label use of the hormone dexamethasone (aka “dex”), injecting pregnant women in order to prevent their daughters from “abnormal” gendered behavior.
In other words, New is using dex to create prototype 50′s housewives: feminine, straight, maternal homemakers. This news is disturbing enough, but what I find more insidious is the way that Sharon Begley of Newsweek is trying to temper the public’s outrage at this type of genetic engineering by presenting a more balanced portrait of New’s work.
Just as Hannah Rosin tried to offer a legitimate rationale for the methods Dr. Dix Poppas uses in surgically altering and subsequently testing the sensitivity of young girls with CAH in her recent piece on Slate, Begley begins her story by saying, “The controversy over using female hormones as part of prenatal care isn’t quite as shocking as the headlines suggest.” Really? Because I’m pretty sure it is shocking. Maybe more shocking than we’ve considered.
New’s mad scientist routine, along with Poppas’s quest to build a female Frankenstein, were both unearthed by bioethicist Alice Dreger of Northwestern University. Begley says the result of Dreger’s digging “is a discovery that is much less outrageous than the PR push, and some media coverage, would have you believe.” Dreger says New is pursuing the “first systematic approach to prenatally preventing homosexuality and bisexuality,” and she’s got quotes from scientific papers and slides from presentations by New that prove it. Begley herself even quotes a 2010 paper written by New, published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, filled with inflammatory statements that clearly indicate New’s position that females who do not conform to traditional roles are abnormal, and that the prenatal use of dex will help them marry men and have babies, like any good girl should. Begley quotes New as having written,
“Gender-related behaviors, namely childhood play, peer association, career and leisure time preferences in adolescence and adulthood, maternalism, aggression, and sexual orientation become masculinized” in females with CAH. “These abnormalities have been attributed to the effects of excessive prenatal androgen levels on the sexual differentiation of the brain” and New “anticipate(s) that prenatal dexamethasone therapy will reduce (this) well-documented behavioral masculinization.”
Begley defends New by saying, “Her aim seems to be to treat CAH girls” so that not only their body parts, “but also their brains, are clearly female, something she believes will make life easier for them. In her eyes, she is simply righting a genetic wrong, giving CAH girls the biology that a genetic mutation sent awry.”
I understand a parent’s desire to ensure the easiest life possible for their child, but it is absolutely essential that ethics play a role in considering what steps are acceptable to take in ensuring a pain-free life. Having a thin frame topped by a large chest and a head of blond hair bouncing above crystal blue eyes may make life “easier” for girls (or more palatable for those around them who have trouble processing anyone who falls outside of that description), but I thought the pursuit of eugenics died with Hitler. Additionally, I wonder how New, Begley and Rosin would feel if Dreger were espousing the abnormality of heterosexuality and advocating that gay doctors inject their pregnant patients with homo juice so that mothers would give birth to glittery rainbows – literally. It’s common knowledge that nothing is more lovely than a glittery rainbow. Just ask any “normal” little girl.
New, like Poppas, has apparently not received even a slap on the wrist from her superiors, despite the fact that her experiments with dex were never approved. I just hope she gets to finish her research before the gender police decide that women are no longer allowed to be doctors. In fact, I better hurry up and publish this post. I don’t want the apple pie I just put in the oven to burn because I was too busy readin’ and writin’.
Photo: Pink Sherbet Photography via Flickr