Thomas Beatie (born Tracy Lehuanani LaGondino) on the Oprah Winfrey Show in 2008
A new study has come out in the US on what it is like to be ‘male and pregnant’.
The online journal Obstetrics and Gynecology published the research article ‘Transgender Men Who Experienced Pregnancy After Female-to-Male Gender Transitioning’. The study, which looks at 41 transgender men and their experiences in pregnancy, is seen as cutting-edge work, thought to be the first study of its kind.
There are some interesting facts which emerge from the study, which reveal a bit about the lives of women who have become transgendered males. For instance, apparently ‘prior testosterone use’ did not have an effect on the pregnancy, delivery or birth outcomes of the participants. And the ‘men in this small study had little trouble conceiving’, with the majority of the participants getting pregnant using ‘their own eggs and their partner’s sperm.’ Indeed, only seven percent of the participants had to use fertility drugs; one-third did not even plan their pregnancies.
Yet, there is something troubling about this study, and the way it has been reported. It revolves, I think, around the use of language. There is a deliberate insistence on calling the participants ‘men’, which, in the context of pregnancy and childbirth, makes for very provocative reading. For instance, ‘the men had little trouble conceiving’, or the men ‘used their own eggs’, or the men ‘were denied prenatal care’. One of the participants in the study is quoted as saying, ‘Pregnancy and childbirth were very male experiences for me. When I birthed my children, I was born into fatherhood.’
Of course, any gender theorist will tell you that ‘gender identity is a spectrum’, and that there is a fundamental distinction between one’s gender and one’s biological sex. You can be a man if you wish, or a woman if you wish. What matters is not what is in your DNA – what matters is what you want.
And so, there must be a change in language to reflect this ‘spectrum’ understanding of gender. Thus, the single most defining characteristic of the distinction between the sexes –that is, the ability to have babies – is now something both a man and a woman can do.
Yet, surely the distinction between gender and biological sex breaks down when it comes to pregnancy and childbirth. For if we have to say that a man is giving birth, then that also means we have to call this man the father of the child. But clearly the father of the child is someone else. There is a biological father, and a biological mother; one who impregnates, and one who carries and bears the child. Perhaps a child could have two fathers, but a child cannot have two biological fathers. Thus, we need separate terms to signify the people that have these distinct biological roles.
Perhaps the gender theorist would answer that since one’s biological sex is distinct from one’s gender, it is possible for a transgender man to perform the biological function of a woman, but still psychologically identify herself as a man. But here again, the distinction between gender and sex seems tenuous.
For gender theorists, gender is a construct, something culturally created, that oppresses one by dictating how one should act and think – indeed, how one should be – based upon one’s sex. Thus, when gender and sex are distinct, to ‘be a man’ is not necessarily to have the requisite body parts; rather, it is to identify with a certain, masculine way of being. Yet, being pregnant is not something that any man can ‘be’. In this way, no male can identify with the biological experience of being pregnant. Therefore, it is doubtful that a woman could identify herself as a man whilst being pregnant, because no man can identify with her.
Thus, it seems that part of taking on the distinction between gender and sex is to believe that there is no meaningful connection between one’s psychological experiences and one’s biological experiences. This, in turn, appears to be part of a larger issue, that of the relationship between the mind – or the soul – and the body. As an antidote to the radical separation of gender and sex, I suggest a different philosophical model regarding the human person, that offered by Thomas Aquinas. For Aquinas, although the soul and the body are distinct, the human person can only exist as embodied. This means that the body is essential to the person. Building on this Thomist understanding, Pope John Paul II argued that ‘sex is integral to the identity of the body-person.’
If the body is essential for what it means to be a person, this must also mean that we experience the world, as persons, through our bodies. Our psychological experiences must therefore be grounded in some important way in our biological experiences. Given this connection, it becomes impossible to have the psychological experience of being a man – indeed, of being ‘born into fatherhood’ – whilst biologically giving birth to a child.
The project of redefining gender is a very significant part of a larger ideological movement – driven by both postmodernism and philosophical liberalism – to destroy, or to overcome, every kind of constraint, whether it be a constraint of convention, or of nature. The concept of a radical freedom defines our age – a freedom which refuses to be bound by a concept of what it means to be human, and demands that the only kind of human good is one that we create out of our own desires. It is our attempts to realize this radical freedom which continually drive us on in questioning ‘every fact of community’. Our culture is plagued by what Roger Scruton calls the ‘exterminating “why”’. And he warns that this exterminating ‘why’ will eventually leave us ‘entirely disinherited’.
Thus, gender roles, and even the concept of gender itself, are prime targets for our postmodern, exterminating tendencies. The extermination starts – as always – with a change in language, and the shaming of those who question the language. Indeed, one important theme of the study was that the transgender men were significantly distressed by the fact that many people refused to refer to them as ‘men’ or ‘he’ when they were pregnant. The obvious message was that one is insensitive, and even hateful, if one refuses to use the new language.
Yet, this language change is having fundamental repercussions for our culture.
The issue is this: we need terms which describe the biological process of reproduction. But, due to gender theory, those terms – woman, man, mother, father – have now become loaded with a political meaning which goes far beyond their original, descriptive role. Thus, when one says that ‘a man is having a baby’, one does not mean that a biological man is having a baby. One is making a political statement: that one is not bound by an old-fashioned binary concept of gender; that one believes there is no inherent meaning in being male or female; that one wants to create the human good, not discover it.
The result is that we are fast losing a language which corresponds to reality regarding the most necessary act for the continuation of the human race. Instead, we now have a public, political language which is geared specifically to obscure what happens in reality.
Do we really want to be ‘entirely disinherited’ of the concept of gender?
Holly Hamilton-Bleakley is a mother of six living in the USA. She holds an MPhil and PhD in Intellectual History and Political Thought from the University of Cambridge (England). She blogs at Philosophy for Parents.