Lissa Rankin M.D.

Owning Pink

Prenatal Drugs to Prevent Lesbianism?!

It makes me sick to my stomach.

Posted Aug 25, 2010

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Sometimes I read things that get my dander up with such ire that I simply have to write about them, if for no other reason than to diffuse the charge. This is one of those posts.

Apparently, some scary doctor in Florida is dosing pregnant women with a medication to try to prevent their daughters from becoming lesbians and ensure that they become Stepford wives instead. Yeah, I know. Horrifying. It makes me sick to my stomach.

GI Joe instead of Barbie

Pediatric endocrinologist Dr. Maria New is using the drug dexamethasone, a steroid medication sometimes used to help prevent ambiguous genitalia in girls born with congenital adrenal hyperplasia (a rare condition that can lead to babies born with genitals that appear like part penis, part vulva). But Dr. New is concerned with more than making sure that babies aren’t born with confusing genitals. She also wants to ensure that girls aren’t born liking "dude" things -- like GI Joe instead of Barbie, skateboarding instead of tea parties, career instead of motherhood, girls instead of boys.

As stated on, “pediatric endocrinologist Maria New — of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine and Florida International University — isn't just trying to prevent lesbianism by treating pregnant women with an experimental hormone. She's also trying to prevent the births of girls who display an 'abnormal' disinterest in babies, don't want to play with girls' toys or become mothers, and whose 'career preferences' are deemed too ‘masculine.’”

Is it a boy or a girl?

Now don’t get me wrong. Ambiguous genitalia is tough. I’ve delivered quite a few babies with ambiguous genitalia (the PC term is “intersex”).  The baby slides out, the nurse wipes the baby off, and the excited mother cries, “Is it a boy or a girl?”

And then there is dead silence in the room. The nurse taps me on the shoulder, so I let go of the umbilical cord, leaving the placenta still inside the womb, to sidle over to the baby warmer, where the baby lies spread eagle under bright lights. The nurse eyes me, that silent question mark we in the medical field perfect to express confusion or concern without alarming our patients. I see that the baby has two labia, and protruding between them is something that looks like a penis. Is it a boy or a girl? We can’t tell.

Communicating this to a parent is not easy. There’s no good way to say, “Your baby appears to have what we call ambiguous genitalia, meaning that we see characteristics of both male and female genitalia. We will need to do a blood test to determine your baby’s chromosomes, so we can sort out what’s going on.”

As you can imagine, this does not go over well. We live in a black and white world. You’re either male or you’re female, right? Well, not always. 

Drugging babies into being less girly

So yes. Preventing this kind of genital confusion might be good. But what makes me crazy about Dr. New’s approach is that she’s not stopping at the purely medical. She’s talking about drugging babies into being girly.

Dr. New and her long-time collaborator, psychologist Heino F. L. Meyer-Bahlburg of Columbia University, have also been investigating the influence of prenatal androgens in sexual orientation. Regarding women with congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH), the authors write, "Most women were heterosexual, but the rates of bisexual and homosexual orientation were increased above controls . . . and correlated with the degree of prenatal androgenization.”

They go on to suggest that prenatal hormones may influence sexual orientation. “That this may apply also to sexual orientation in at least a subgroup of women is suggested by the fact that earlier research has repeatedly shown that about one-third of homosexual women have (modestly) increased levels of androgens.” They “conclude that the findings support a sexual-differentiation perspective involving prenatal androgens on the development of sexual orientation.”

They’re not just interested in sexual orientation. In the paper “What Causes Low Rates of Child-Bearing in Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia?” Meyer-Bahlburg writes about how women with CAH seem less interested in getting married, having babies, and generally performing the duties of 1950’s womanhood.  As kids, they don’t play as much with baby dolls, and as they grow up, they fantasize less about pregnancy and motherhood and they seem less interested in boys.

According to the researchers, giving pregnant women prenatal dexamethasone might change all this.  

It gets worse.  According to Slog, “in a paper published 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 dexamethasone.”

Are they serious?!

I just don’t know what to say about all of this. Are they serious? Are they planning on dosing up every pregnant woman with a potentially risky drug to make sure we all grow up like June Cleaver?  This sounds way too much like the Nazi experiments for my taste.

You all know how I feel. Be all you, all the time, and if that means you don’t want kids or you love women or you like dude things and choose a dude career, more power to ya! But that’s just me.

What do you think? How does this sit with you? Let’s chat!

Dr. Lissa Rankin is an OB/GYN physician, an author, a nationally-represented professional artist, and the founder of Owning Pink, an online community committed to building authentic community and empowering women to get- and keep- their "mojo". Owning Pink is all about owning all the facets of what makes you whole- your health, your sexuality, your spirituality, your creativity, your career, your relationships, the planet, and YOU. Dr. Rankin is currently redefining women’s health at the Owning Pink Center, her practice in Mill Valley, California. She is the author of the forthcoming What's Up Down There? Questions You'd Only Ask Your Gynecologist If She Was Your Best Friend (St. Martin's Press, September 2010).

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