US proposal for defining gender has no basis in science

By Nature Journal Editorial Board

According to a draft memo leaked to The New York Times, the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) proposes to establish a legal definition of whether someone is male or female based solely and immutably on the genitals they are born with. Genetic testing, it says, could be used to resolve any ambiguity about external appearance. The move would make it easier for institutions receiving federal funds, such as universities and health programmes, to discriminate against people on the basis of their gender identity.

The memo claims that processes for deciding the sex on a birth certificate will be “clear, grounded in science, objective and administrable”.

The proposal — on which HHS officials have refused to comment — is a terrible idea that should be killed off. It has no foundation in science and would undo decades of progress on understanding sex — a classification based on internal and external bodily characteristics — and gender, a social construct related to biological differences but also rooted in culture, societal norms and individual behaviour. Worse, it would undermine efforts to reduce discrimination against transgender people and those who do not fall into the binary categories of male or female.

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