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Leefstyl | Lifestyle > Gay > Artikels | Features

The supposed prevention of homosexuality through antenatal medicine


Cobus Fourie - 2010-07-13

It is not often that I receive an email addressed to “all human rights campaigners” that concerns a medical development that infringes on some very basic human rights; but there it was on Friday. My colleague often expresses her immense disgust for weekends because such disparaging news has a tendency to arrive just as the weekend is about to kick off.

Normally the bad news is a matter of social or religious conservatism, hateful propaganda, gay-cure pseudoscience, hatred, intolerance, violence, corrective rape, murder, persecution and legal inequity – which can be far-reaching. This time it came from an unexpected corner. Normally we receive information on the latest psychological charlatanry. Now we see seemingly eugenic medical studies returning. The notorious Dr Mengele would have been proud of some of the industrious little “researchers” out there.

The ruckus involves research which mainstream media labelled The Anti-Lesbian Drug. And rightly so – the implications of just the basis of such “treatment” and “research” by itself have the ability to be earth-shatteringly Nazi-esque.

In this case a synthetic corticosteroid, dexamethasone, is given to expectant mothers to supposedly “prevent homosexuality and uppity women” where the female foetus has (or hasn’t) congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH). The congenital disorder CAH causes an overproduction of androgens in utero which may lead to ambiguous genitalia in female infants and a degree of intersexuality and also apparently a rejection of 1950s traditional gender roles. Researchers contend that they only wish to treat congenital abnormalities, but the real ethical dilemma with the use of dexamethasone is claims that it can prevent homosexuality/bisexuality or “uppity”women.

The premise of the research into antenatal cures for homosexuality: the folly that only heterosexuality is normal, making this the most obscene heterosexist expression ever. Here it is all about sexual/gender role stereotyping – thus conformity within rigid standards and a crude attempt to define “normal”.

Rang et al (2003: 412) elaborate a bit on dexamethasone, describing its properties as “anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressive, used especially where water retention is undesirable, eg cerebral oedema; drug of choice for suppression of ACTH [Adrenocorticotropic hormone] production." So, great – a synthetic corticosteroid is administered to lower ACTH levels, which in turn via a negative feedback system stymies the production of “undesirable” androgens (or male hormones if you wish).

But unfortunately most, if not all, medicines come with undesirable side-effects, as elucidated in Rang et al (2003: 417):

Possible unwanted effects include suppression of the response to infection and injury; an intercurrent infection can be potentially very serious unless quickly treated with antimicrobial agents along with an increase in the dose of steroid. Wound healing may be impaired and peptic ulceration may also occur.

Dexamethasone is no wonder drug, as seen from a mother’s experience as reported in A Prenatal Treatment Raises Questions of Medical Ethics:

But Jenny Westphal, 24, who took dexamethasone throughout her pregnancy at the recommendation of another doctor, says she feels misled. Like Langford she was not asked to give informed consent. Unlike Langford, however, her daughter, now 3, who has CAH, has also had serious and mysterious health problems since birth, including feeding disorders, that are not commonly associated with her adrenal-gland disorder.

In April, Westphal, who lives in Wisconsin, started doing research online and discovered there was some controversy over the treatment. "I was outraged, frustrated and confused. Confused, because no one had ever warned me about this. I wasn't given the chance to decide for myself, based on the risks and benefits, if I wanted the treatment or not," she says.

Westphal may never know whether her daughter's problems were caused by dexamethasone, though she will likely always believe they were. That is why so many similar situations, in which experimental drugs are prescribed off-label without informed consent rather than in clinical trials, wind up becoming case studies – not in scientific journals, but exactly where Westphal and her husband are considering taking theirs: to court.

Unfortunately the Frankenstein-like medical research isn’t limited to pharmaceuticals; some extremely nauseating “surgeries” and other “therapies” also occur, as reported by Newsweek. Sharon Begley, Newsweek’s science editor, elaborates on more unconscionable and nefarious “treatments” in “The Anti-Lesbian Drug”:

[T]he doctors touch the girl’s “surgically shortened clitoris with a cotton-tip applicator and/or with a ‘vibratory device,’ and the girl is asked to report to [the doctor] how strongly she feels him touching her clitoris. Using the vibrator, he also touches her on her inner thigh, her labia minora, and the introitus of her vagina.”

While Hanna Rosin at Slate argued that the practice is a reasonable attempt “to answer a legitimate scientific question”, others have gone ballistic, calling the surgery “a form of female genital mutilation” and warning that the annual vibrator sessions could “cause lasting psychological damage”.

Both cases – cutting a clitoris surgically, feminizing a brain through hormone treatments – reflect an almost desperate attempt by some doctors and scientists to keep their patients from straying from gender norms.

Alex Blaze, writing for the Huffington Post in “The Sad Lengths Some Go to Avoid Having a Lesbian Daughter”, touches the heart of the issue at hand here. If you know that your child will be born with some abnormality, would you want to “intervene” or would you accept your child just as he or she is? Blaze recalls here:

I am reminded here of a colleague who works as a social worker on a craniofacial team at a children's hospital. She was telling me one day, despairingly, of having a consultation with a pair of expectant parents. Their fetus had been diagnosed with a cleft lip, one that would be reasonably correctable without major trauma. It was true the baby would be born with the odd-looking mouth, and that the child might always have a noticeable lip scar. But this was not a child with a fatal disease or anything. Yet the father was flipping out, saying to his wife and the social worker, "I can't handle this! I can't handle this!" He wanted to abort for this.

My friend and I both were both thinking: Come on! If you can't handle this, what are you going to do when your kid smokes a little dope? What are you going to do if she ends up pregnant at 16? What are you going to do if she sucks at math or suffers from a lot of acne? Sure, abort. But don't have any children if you can't handle this.

One needs to explore the raison d’être behind this phenomenon. Are we becoming so neurotic that we suffer more anxiety before birth of our children and unnecessarily so? Do we wish to engineer our kids to be what we wish we were? Or are we intervening only so that our kids may experience a sense of normalcy?

But then again, since when is being gay or “uppity” abnormal? The American Psychiatric Association and the World Health Organisation do not see it as abnormal. Here the real dilemma comes to the fore: What is normal exactly and what causes the bigotry that drives such “interventions”?

 

Bibliography
Rang, HP, MM Dale, JM Ritter and PK Moore. 2003. Pharmacology. 5th ed. London: Churchill Livingstone.