Friday, November 26, 2010

Life Lines 56


Most of my male readers are 46,XY in their chromosome description. Similarly, most of my female readers are 46,XX in their chromosome description. That means we “define” humans as having 46 chromosomes; two of them are sex chromosomes called X and Y. By “most” I mean 99% of humanity. About 1% of humanity can be 45,X (Turner syndrome females), 47,XXY (Klinefelter syndrome males), sex reversed XY females, sex reversed XX males, mosaic or chimeric individuals with both XX cells and XY cells, or what should have been normal 46, XX females whose embryos were masculinized (think penis and scrotum) because their genetically mutated adrenal glands flooded their developing bodies with male hormones. Are you with me? These babies did nothing wrong. Their parents did nothing wrong. Their problem arose because nature is not perfect.

Having reversed or ambiguous sexual status is rarely life threatening. Sexuality may be essential for our species but it is not a vital function like having kidneys, lungs, or a heart. So here’s the problem: Society doesn’t know how to deal with nature’s mistakes. We shift in values. A good example is those babies who have 47, +21 (trisomy 21 or Down syndrome). Before the 1970s they were called Mongoloid idiots, a name both racist and insulting or insensitive. They were usually institutionalized from the 1920s to 1970s but now they are usually raised at home. While we accept birth defects more in today’s generation than 50 or more years ago, we are still unsure what to do with babies having mixed sexual status (a penis and a vagina; ovaries and testes; a female athlete who tests positive for a Y chromosome but whose genetic disorder makes her unresponsive to male hormone). The list is large. Some parents select surgery to “normalize” the child. It is not possible in some cases and it may be worse, psychologically, for that individual than leaving the child to grow up and choose a sex he or she feels more comfortable adopting.

Should intersex babies be allowed to marry? Does a 46,XY woman have a legal right to marry a 46,XY male? Does the same 46,XY female individual risk being regarded as participating in same sex marriage if she chooses a 46,XX female as her partner because males should legally be defined as 46,XY? We like a simple answer in our cultural standards and laws but nature gives us its variations from accidents of gene mutation and cell division and the occasional union of mutant genes that have been passed unnoticed for several generations. Biologists know this but society still insists that every baby must be a 46, XX female or a 46, XY male. Why do we accept the humanity of a 47,+21 Down syndrome baby, recognizing its special needs, but force intersex babies into an “either male or female” classification that nature has denied to them? In Greek mythology, Procrustes lopped off the feet of those who couldn’t fit into the beds of his inn. Is this what we should do with genitalia for those who don’t fit the culturally desired uniformity that everyone should be an unambiguous male or an unambiguous female?

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