Sunday, March 28, 2004

Another Problem with the Family Marriage Amendment
Sex Isn't Black and White

Leave it to Beaver
Long ago, I was watching an episode of Leave It To Beaver.  The show ran between 1957 and 1963, so I would have been five years old, at the most.  The show was in black and white, as the illustration shows.

In one of the episodes,  Ward Cleaver -- the father figure -- was lecturing to Beaver.  The Beaver had done something morally ambiguous, and was trying to weasel his way out of being blamed for it.  In response, Mr. Cleaver said something like: "Beaver, something is either right, or it is wrong, and that was wrong."

At the time, I recall thinking that some things really are not all that clear-cut.  Later, I was peripherally involved in collecting data for a project that was supposed to define the boundaries of the various categories of anxiety disorders.  I learned that trying to nail down a definition of a human trait is exceedingly difficult.  The devil is in the details, and the more complex something is, the more details there are.  And the more devils there are, too.

Stop and think of aspects of human biology, and try to think of one that illustrates a clear-cut, either-or dichotomy.  Life vs. Death?  Well, no, actually hospitals have to have lengthy guidelines  to follow to decide if a patient is alive or dead.  What about Male vs. Female? 

Clearly, the notion of an absolute distinction between females and males is a core belief in every culture.  Children are aware of this distinction even before they have any knowledge of procreation.  We are so accustomed to being able to tell the difference between males and females that it does not even occur to us that there might be some situations in which gender assignment is less than obvious.

The Family Marriage Amendment would define a marriage as a union between one man and one woman.  That would mean that men cannot marry men, and women cannot mary women.  A very clear distinction.
Mr. Cleaver was aptly named.  He could cut right to the heart of the matter.  He could separate the meat from the bone, so to speak.  And he always could tell right from wrong.  Like I said, it was a black and white show.

But even Mr. Cleaver might not have such an easy time distinguishing female from male.  Take the case of 21-hydroxylase deficiency.  This is an hormonal disorder that causes a developing female fetus to produce too much male hormone.  As a result, the baby looks like a male, even though it has two X chromosomes. 

There are many other causes  (eMedicine) of gender confusion.  In some cases, it takes a team of doctors a fair amount of study to decide if a newborn is male or female.  Sometimes not everyone on the team can agree.

Sometimes it seems as though nature always has another surprise waiting for us.  Just when we think we have an absolutely clear way to distinguish females from males, nature tosses in another variation that we had not anticipated. Here is a description (from eMedicine) of the genetic basis for true hermaphroditism:

The most common karyotype is 46,XX, although mosaicism is common. A translocation of the gene coding for HY antigen from a Y chromosome to either an X chromosome or an autosome presumably explains the testicular material in a patient with a 46,XX karyotype. More problematic is how a true hermaphrodite with a 46,XY karyotype can have ovarian tissue, since two X chromosomes are believed to be necessary to normal ovarian development. Possibly, unidentified XX cell lines are present in these patients.

So it is possible that some individuals will have XY in some of their cells, and XX in others.  Or they will have what appear to be two X chromosomes, but one of the X chromosomes has Y chromosome genes in it.  So you can't distinguish males from females by looking at the chromosomes, with absolute reliability.  For every rule, there will be an exception.

In fact, it is quite likely that there are many couples in the USA, in which one member of the couple looks entirely male, but is genetically female.  Sometimes this is discovered during an infertility workup.  Usually there are other symptoms that lead to the diagnosis earlier in life, but not always.   Are we going to require that all couples in the USA undergo a complete genetic and endocrinological workup before they get a marriage license?  Are we going to require the same of all couples already married, just to be sure that there aren't already some same-sex marriages?  After all, either it is right, or it is wrong.  And if it is wrong, it should be stopped.  Right now. 

Note: persons with some kind of ambiguous genitalia or hermaphroditism are called intersexuals.  Society often is not nice to them.  See Bodies Like Ours  and Intersex Society of North America  for more information.  And try to be nice to people, all people, even if their very existence threatens your belief structure.