If you’re too young to remember the original movie The Stepford Wives (I didn’t like the remake), here’s a brief synopsis: Women in Stepford love housework. They dress as if they’re going to the Academy Awards just to go to the grocery store. They don’t age, their boobs are firm, and they love to have sex at the drop of a hat (or the drop of a man’s drawers), even with their aging, sagging husbands. And even with all the sex and glamour, they can still keep their homes spotless.
The women in Stepford are ultra-feminine, according to the standards of the day (the film was made in 1972, amidst the women’s rights movement of the time). They reject everything that the women’s rights movement stands for. In fact, they think it is ridiculous – after all, a woman’s job is to cook and clean and keep her man happy. If she can’t do that, she’s no kind of woman.
The women are able to do these things and think this way (in truth, they don’t really think at all) because the men in Stepford have learned how to create robots that look just like their wives and infuse these robots with some of their wives’ sensibilities, but not all of them – not the ambitious, even somewhat rebellious ones that make women want to pursue hobbies and careers and maybe leave the breakfast dishes unwashed for a while.
For the times, it was a movie that made a strong statement – and maybe that statement needs to be made again. A paper from Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, appearing in the Journal of Bioethical Inquiry and reported in The Advocate, claims that U.S. physicians are “using a synthetic steroid to prevent female babies from being born with ‘behavioral masculinization,’ or rather a propensity toward lesbianism, bisexuality, intersexuality, and tomboyism.” (quoted from The Advocate report)
In other words, doctors are creating Stepford wives in the womb. Apparently, pregnant women who are at risk of having a child born with congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH), an endocrinological condition that can result in female fetuses being born with intersex or more male-typical genitals and brains, are being given dexamethasone, a synthetic steroid, to try to “normalize” the development of those fetuses. Note that the report says “women who are at risk” of having a child born with CAH – the medication is being received by fetuses who do not even have CAH, and, in some cases, by male fetuses.
And even if the female fetus does have the condition, it appears that not much is known about the long-term risks of giving this drug to pregnant women, both for the women and for the children who have been exposed to this drug in utero. The doctors who are administering this drug, and the women who are accepting it, are obviously more concerned about the “femininity” of these female children than they are about potential health hazards. The drug has not even been approved by the FDA for this purpose.
I don’t blame the pregnant women. Because of our culture’s reverence for doctors (and in many cases, it is well deserved), along with a pregnant woman’s vulnerability (she wants to do what is right for her child), many of these women will listen to and do what their doctor says. Invoking fear in a pregnant woman by discussing the “concerns” of having a “masculine,” lesbian, or intersex daughter could result in that woman agreeing to take an experimental drug regimen, believing that the doctor knows best.
I don’t even completely blame the doctors, although I think that their culpability far outweighs that of their pregnant patients. I prefer to blame the culture that insists that:
> “Masculine” gender characteristics are superior to “feminine” gender characteristics, but only to a point – and that point comes when females start developing them. (We need an “inferior” class – “feminine” women – in order to maintain a “superior” class – “masculine” men.)
> All girls and women must be “feminine,” both in appearance and in expression, and all boys and men must be “masculine.”
> Marrying a man, having heterosexual sex, and bearing children are goals that all women have – or should have. (Females with CAH have been shown to be less interested in traditional female roles, marriage, and child rearing than control groups, as per the report.)
> No girl or woman could possibly want to be a lesbian, bisexual, or even a “tomboy,” and if she found out that this could have been prevented in the womb, she would be upset that it hadn’t been.
> An intersex condition is a bad thing. Having non-standard genitalia is a bad thing. Imperfection is a bad thing. “Normal” is not only desirable, but it’s worth substantial risk to achieve – and “normal” is whatever the culture says it is.
This is why I have always been opposed to “finding a cause” – not for everything, of course, but for a lot of things. Find a “gay gene” and you can certainly win the argument that sexual orientation is not a choice – but you can also succeed in eliminating gay, lesbian, and bisexual people altogether. Find a “trans gene” and you win your argument that transition is not a choice – but how long will it be before any kind of gender diversity disappears from the gene pool?
Certainly, doctors need to be looking at any real health problems associated with CAH and figuring out how to manage or mediate those. But in utero experimentation to prevent “masculine” or “imperfect” females – or women who don’t want to do housework and bear children – smacks of Stepford. I had hoped we were beyond that.