Congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH) is a rare disorder (it occurs in about 1 in 10,000 infants) that can cause girls to develop ambiguous genitalia. Some doctors think CAH also induces "masculine behavior," i.e. a disinterest in having children and an interest in dating other women.
Because lots of parents (and doctors) don't want girls to act non-stereotypically girly, some doctors prescribe pregnant women who are at risk of having a child with CAH a drug called dexamethasone. Problem solved! Well, no, not, exactly: new research shows that children prenatally treated with the drug might be more likely to develop serious medical problems. Why don't more doctors care about the findings? And even if additional studies prove that the drug is safer than is thought, is it ethical to tweak a child's sexual behavior before he or she is even out of the womb?
According to Buzzfeed Shift, pediatric endocrinologist Maria New, an avid advocate for prenatal dexamethasone treatment who continues to tell mothers the drug is safe, has come under fire for having somewhat of a secret goal to prevent lesbianism in the past. She's denied those allegations over and over, but a 1996 grant application seems suspicious:
In the application, New listed "tomboyish behavior" and "increased adolescent/adult bisexuality and lesbianism" among the potential effects of CAH. The application also states that "genital abnormalities and often multiple corrective surgeries needed affect social interaction, self image, romantic and sexual life, and fertility. As a consequence, many of these patients [...] appear to remain childless and single. Preventive prenatal dexamethasone exposure is expected to improve this situation." And as recently as 2010, New was advocating dex as a prenatal treatment for "behavioral masculinization" in girls with CAH, including an interest in traditionally masculine careers
Thea Hillman, author of Intersex (For Lack of a Better Word), was born with CAH but was treated with dexamethasone as a child, not prenatally — a big difference, since post-birth treatment helps with medical issues like abormal skeletal growth and early puberty but doesn't affect sex or gender inclinations. She told Shift that doctors like New are "not addressing the medical condition - they're trying to make typical girls, girls that are straight and want to have babies, girls that act normally." She identifies as queer and says that she wouldn't have wanted a treatment aimed at changing her sexual orientation. But people with CAH don't get to decide; their parents and doctors make those life-altering choices.
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