Why Can’t A Woman Be More Like A Man?
The headline was certainly arresting. “Pregnant Man Tells Oprah: It’s a miracle.” Yet the details of the story paint a slightly different picture:
A transgendered man who is six months pregnant said in an interview aired by Oprah Winfrey on Thursday that he always wanted to have a child and considers it a miracle.
“It’s not a male or female desire to have a child. It’s a human desire,” a thinly bearded Thomas Beatie said. “I have a very stable male identity,” he added, saying that pregnancy neither defines him nor makes him feel feminine.
Beatie, 34, who lives in Oregon, was born a woman but decided to become a man 10 years ago. He began taking testosterone treatments and had breast surgery to remove glands and flatten his chest.
“I opted not to do anything with my reproductive organs because I wanted to have a child one day,” he told the talk show host.
There’s nothing particularly miraculous about the story. Women get pregnant all the time, and despite any claims to the contrary Beatie is still a woman. She clearly does not like to think of herself that way, and has taken various steps to make herself appear that way (though from the story it does not appear that she has undergone sex-reassignment surgery), but neither thinking of oneself as male nor looking male is sufficient to actually be male.
Suppose that Beatie had undergone sex reassignment surgery. In that case the issue of her getting pregnant never would have arisen. But would it then be true to say that Beatie was a man? I think not. One’s sex, or so the biologists tell us, is determined not simply by the presence or absence of any particular sexual organs, but reflects a deeper genetic reality. The fact that a woman has undergone even fairly extreme measures to make her look like a man does not mean that she is a man, anymore than the fact that a person might undergo surgery to make himself look exactly like a particular celebrity means that he has become that celebrity.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that it is necessarily impossible for a woman to become a man or visa versa. One can certainly imagine science-fiction type scenarios (say, transplanting the central nervous system of a man into a woman’s body, or some new medical treatment that reconfigures one’s genetic structure) where this could at least arguably be said to occur. Nor does the fact that, at least with current technology, it is impossible for a woman to actually become a man or visa versa mean that it is immoral for her to take whatever steps are available to look and act that way. When John Howard Griffin underwent medical treatment to make himself look black before he wrote Black Like Me, he did not actually become black. Yet this fact does not mean that it was morally wrong for him to undergo the treatment. It may be that, given the current state of technology, transgendered individuals are tragically unable to actually change their sex, and that the next best case scenario is for them to do what they can to at least appear more like a member of their preferred sex.
Nevertheless, there is something about the justification typically offered by individuals for trying to change their sex that is troubling. In cases like this, the claim is often made by the transgendered and their supporters that the transgendered individual in question is a man trapped in a woman’s body, or visa versa. While such claims represent a no doubt very powerful and pressing subjective reality for the people involved, so far as I can tell the claim is philosophically incoherent. I can imagine a man being trapped in a woman’s body, as in, for example, the movie Inner Space. But what people typically mean by such a claim – that though they have a male body they are somehow really female or visa versa – does not strike me as being even metaphysically possible. One’s gender is determined by one’s body. Being female consists simply in having a female body, being male in having a male body. So it is not even coherent to claim that one has a female body but is not female. Having a female body is what being female means.
Nor would the ability to actually change one’s sex, if it were available, make this position any less incoherent. Supposing that there were a pill that could alter one’s sex down to the genetic code. Assuming that people were able to survive such a process they would, I think, have succeeded in changing their sex. Even if someone did undergo such a process, however, it would not be the case that they were ever a man trapped in a woman’s body or a woman trapped inside a man’s body.
Of course, the fact that a person’s motivation for an action is based on a philosophically incoherent belief does not necessarily make that action morally problematic. But it ought, I think, to give us pause when evaluating such decisions.
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