Male pregnancy and a la carte sex changes.

Science, technology, and life.
July 8 2008 12:36 AM

Phallus in Wonderland

Male pregnancy and a la carte sex changes.

It's a girl!

Well, it's a girl for now. Thomas Beatie, the "pregnant man," has given birth. Beatie used to be a girl, too. Then he decided to become a man. Which he is now. Sort of.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

We like to think there are two sexes: male and female. If you're not one, you're the other. That's what the gay-marriage fight is about: Boys belong with girls, and kids need a mom and dad, or so we tell ourselves. Behavior that confounds these assumptions makes us uncomfortable.

But behavior was the easy part. Homosexuality, tomboys, and female impersonation have been around forever. In those cases, you could accuse the gender bender of defying his or her bodily nature. Not anymore. Now the body itself is being bent, not just through old-fashioned castration but through reversible hormone therapy and surgeries that offer a customized mix of male and female genitalia. You don't have to be one or the other. You can be both.

Peer into the Web sites of sex-change purveyors, and you'll see a long menu of a la carte options. You can grow or remove hair. You can augment or reduce your breasts hormonally or surgically. If you're born male and want to be female, you can get vaginoplasty to remove parts of your penis while keeping other parts to "line the vaginal vault" and form a neo-clitoris. You can turn part of your scrotum into labia. You can add voice surgery, "facial feminization," or a tracheal shave.

If you're born female and want to be male, you can hormonally enlarge your clitoris and surgically lengthen its appearance. You can get scrotoplasty, a "testicular prosthesis," and a grafted neo-penis powered by an "erectile device" for penetration. You can keep your ovaries and uterus, and even your vagina, unless you want a longer urethra so you can pee standing up.

How many people are living in this no-man's/no-woman's land? Nobody knows. But type the word "shemale" into Google, and you'll get 44 million hits. Judging from the initial entries, if this is your cup of tea, you won't have to be lonely very long.

Beatie's transformation began a decade ago. "Sterilization is not a requirement for sex reassignment, so I decided to have chest reconstruction and testosterone therapy but kept my reproductive rights," he explained recently in the Advocate. "Reproductive rights" was a euphemism for his uterus and ovaries. "I actually opted not to do anything to my reproductive organs because I wanted to have a child one day," he told Oprah Winfrey  in April.

For eight years, Beatie didn't menstruate. Then, two years ago, "I stopped taking my bimonthly testosterone injections," he recalls. "My body regulated itself after about four months, and I didn't have to take any exogenous estrogen, progesterone, or fertility drugs to aid my pregnancy." Meanwhile, his beard kept growing.

How did he get pregnant? His wife inseminated him. On Oprah, she explained how she got a syringe from her vet and injected donor sperm  into him. No needles were involved. Evidently, he still had a functional vagina.

Last week, we found out just how functional the organ was. Reportedly, Beatie had been scheduled for a Caesarean. Instead, according to ABC News, he gave birth the "natural" way.

For skeptics, this is too much. "There is no 'pregnant man.' There is only a confused and unsettled woman," Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe protested after the Oprah interview. In Jacoby's view, Beatie "remains physically a woman, with a woman's reproductive system, a woman's genitals, and a woman's chromosomes."

But female genitals don't settle the matter. "Did you have, like, a penis implant?" Oprah asked  Beatie. No, he answered, but "hormones are an incredible thing." "Does the clitoris get larger?" she asked. "It does. It looks like a penis—a small penis," he replied. How small? "I can have intercourse with my wife," he smiled.

So here's the score: Beatie has a vagina, a uterus, ovaries, and a baby. He also has a beard, a flat chest, a wife, and an altered clitoris that functions sexually like a penis. Under Oregon law, he's legally male  and legally married to a woman. "I am stable and confident being the man that I am," he wrote in the Advocate. But he added, "In a technical sense I see myself as my own surrogate."

That's probably the best way to understand Beatie and the frontier he represents. Sex isn't necessarily binary. It isn't even necessarily zero-sum. Beatie made himself capable of penetration while retaining his ability to bear children. He kept his female equipment tucked away for the day when he'd need a surrogate. The surrogate was himself. Beatie the man preserved and used Beatie the woman.

If you regard Beatie's sex change as a crime against nature, it's not clear what you should propose to do about it now. He and his wife have a baby. As things stand, this girl will grow up with a mom and dad. Do you want to tell her she has no dad? Do you want her to have two mommies? Do you want to nullify her parents' marriage?

Male pregnancy won't end with Beatie. It didn't even begin with him. Eight years ago in the Village Voice, a transgendered person in San Francisco told a similar story. Thanks to testosterone, he wrote, "My hips are smaller, my muscle mass is growing, and every day it seems like there's more hair on my face and body." But that was nothing compared to his partner's transformation: "My boyfriend is the mother of my child."

How many other men will pursue pregnancy, now that they know it can be done? To put it the other way, how many women will change their sex and still try to have babies? In the world of a la carte body modification, you can't stop them. You can't even make them choose a firm identity. And once they've changed their bodies, you can't accuse them of not acting like a regular man or woman. That's not what they are anymore.

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