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  • Field Notes
  • Josephine Johnston

Talking points

A couple of weeks ago a reporter from People magazine telephoned to talk about a pregnant man. Here’s the story: Thomas Beatie was born a woman, but a decade ago he legally became a man. He is married to a woman who had a hysterectomy to treat severe endometriosis and as a result cannot carry a pregnancy. Because Beatie still has his uterus and ovaries (only his breasts were removed during his sex change), the couple decided to see if he could get pregnant using donor sperm. They were successful, and their daughter is due in July. Beatie isn’t the first transsexual to get pregnant, but because he wrote about it in The Advocate, a gay and lesbian magazine, he’s gotten a lot of media attention. Cue the bioethicist.

Since we began our Bioethics and the Public Interest Initiative, I’ve talked with many more reporters than in the previous four years of my tenure here. (Increased outreach to the media, along with policy-makers and opinion leaders, is a major goal of the initiative.) Some, like a news reporter who called last June, seem to be looking for a very specific reaction from a “bioethicist.” Her initial plan to bring a film crew to Garrison from New York City for an item on advances in egg-freezing technology evaporated after we exchanged a few emails. Once it became clear that I would not condemn the technology for unnaturally allowing women to control the timing of their childbearing, she wasn’t interested. That’s fine—there are, after all, a wide variety of opinions within bioethics on most of the issues we deal with, and journalists are free to seek them out.

Other reporters, like the one from People, turn out to be a bit more open. While beginning with the predictable questions for a story like this—“Is this a good thing?” and “Is this going too far in manipulating the body/advances in reproductive medicine?”—she didn’t really seem to care whether I thought Beatie a hero or a monster. And I am a little more savvy now. This time I wrote down in advance three points I wanted to make in reference to the story, none of which happened to be of the “this is bad and should be banned” variety. You certainly don’t need to work in bioethics to make these points, but they were specific and (I hope) interesting points nonetheless that accurately reflect my thinking about this kind of controversy. Then I concentrated on making those points during the interview.

It doesn’t matter much to me that Beatie is a transgender, or that the daughter he gives birth to will grow up calling him Daddy rather than Mommy. There are lots of different family formations in our society, and many kids seem to do well in them if the key elements are there. And I doubt that Beatie’s daughter will be born thinking there is something deeply wrong with her or her parents. She’ll figure out soon enough that her father is unusual, which is when her family, friends, teachers, community, and larger society will have the opportunity to teach her that unusual can be just fine. Sometimes difference is damaging only because we insist on it—and that’s a nice point to get to make. [End Page c2]

Josephine Johnston
Associate for Law and Bioethics and Director of Research Operations


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Archived 2012
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