Sex, lies and gender

Journal of Medical Ethics 43 (1):14-16 (2017)
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Browne 1 (this issue ) argues that what may appear to be a benevolent practice-disclosing the sex of a fetus to expecting parents who wish to know-is in fact an epistemically problematic and, as a result, ethically questionable medical practice. Browne worries that not only will the disclosure of fetal sex encourage sex-selective abortions (an issue we will not take up here), but also that it will convey a misleading and pernicious message about the relationship between sex and gender. More specifically, she contends that the practice of disclosure is problematic because (1) it purports to establish the gender of the developing baby based on information about the baby's sex, whereas this is not a warranted inference because while sex is determined by biological factors, gender is determined by social factors and (2) it conflates (biological) sex with (social) gender or encourages such conflation or reduction and thereby promotes 'essentialistic' thinking about gender that is closely linked to sexism and social injustice. If (1) is true, then disclosing fetal sex amounts to misinforming or misleading prospective parents-and since misinforming patients is wrong, the act of disclosing is also wrong. However, beyond the wrongs of misinforming patients, the practice also perpetuates the harms associated with a rigidly gendered society through endorsing the message in (2), thus lending the authority of the medical profession to the gender-essentialist ideas that have underpinned, and continue to drive, sexism and social injustice. This analysis leads Browne to recommend that clinicians be prohibited from informing parents about the sex of their developing fetus. We agree with Browne that gender essentialism-the notion that 'femaleness' and 'maleness' carve out distinct natural classes with innate, immutable properties-is not only a false metaphysical thesis, but also a pernicious idea insofar as the sexist attitudes it fosters motivate policies that systematically violate the human rights of women, as well as those of the LGBTQ community. However, we do not think that the disclosure of fetal sex misinforms prospective parents about the gender of their baby, nor do we believe that such disclosure presupposes or promotes gender essentialism properly understood.

Author Profiles

Irina Mikhalevich
Rochester Institute of Technology
Russell Powell
Boston University


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