FRIDAY, Aug. 6 (HealthDay News) -- Bioethicists are accusing a
noted American pediatric endocrinologist and researcher of what
they claim is the first attempt to prevent homosexuality and
bisexuality in the womb in a dispute that has drawn in leading
major medical organizations.
The accusations revolve around the experimental prenatal
treatment of female fetuses for a condition called congenital
adrenal hyperplasia (CAH), which can result in girls being born
with ambiguous genitalia.
The pediatrician, Dr. Maria New of the Mount Sinai School of
Medicine and Florida International University, is a longtime
champion of the prenatal use of a powerful steroidal medication
called dexamethasone to prevent the development of CAH in the
But some medical ethicists accuse New of having a hidden agenda.
New has also taken part in research that has linked CAH to sexual
orientation, noting that girls with CAH were more likely to be
bisexual or homosexual and more likely to be interested in
traditionally "masculine" careers and hobbies.
The bioethicists believe New's desire to treat female fetuses
with dexamethasone stems from a desire to "prevent" lesbianism or
bisexuality and steer girls toward classically defined
"Her main goal has been to prevent ambiguous genitalia and all the things that come with it, including what she calls 'behavioral masculinization,'" charged Alice Dreger, professor of clinical medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine. "She includes in that what she calls 'masculinized orientation.'"
Dreger described New's work as the first instance in the history
of medicine that "clinicians are actively trying to prevent
Congenital adrenal hyperplasia remains a relatively rare
condition, with about 1 in every 10,000 to 18,000 children born
with the disorder, according to the U.S. National Institutes of
Health. Girls and boys with CAH lack an enzyme needed by the
adrenal gland to produce a pair of hormones, cortisol and
aldosterone. The lack of these hormones prompts the body to produce
more of the male sex hormone, androgen. This can cause girls to
have genitals that look more male than female, even though their
internal sex organs develop normally.
New declined to be interviewed for this article, but released a
statement denying the charges.
"In my six years at Mount Sinai I have not administered the drug to any woman for the purpose of treating an unborn child," New's statement read. "Allegations that my goal is to prevent lesbianism are completely untrue." She added that she has received approval to conduct long-term evaluation of children who earlier received treatment with prenatal dexamethasone for CAH.
But Dreger said New's statement dodges the primary accusation
that she and other ethicists have laid against the doctor: that New
has recommended dexamethasone for use in treating CAH without
notifying parents that the drug is not approved for that use.
"We're concerned that the women don't know the drug is experimental, or that they are part of an experiment," Dreger said. "All the major medical societies have said this is very experimental and should be done in clinical trials only, if at all."
Dreger noted that the Web site of the Maria New Children's
Hormone Foundation attests that she "has treated over 600 pregnant
women at risk for the birth of a CAH-affected child. Treatment
begins as soon as pregnancy is confirmed." The Web site does not
explain what treatment New used, only that she has been developing
a treatment since 1984.
A number of major medical societies are drafting physician
guidelines on the use of dexamethasone for CAH in a consensus paper
prepared by the Endocrine Society and scheduled for publication in
September in the
Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism.
The guidelines will recommend that prenatal treatment of CAH
continue to be regarded as an experimental procedure, noting that
dexamethasone therapy can cause low birth weight and birth defects,
such as cleft palate. The guidelines will be endorsed by the
American Academy of Pediatrics, the Lawson Wilkins Pediatric
Endocrine Society, the European Society for Paediatric
Endocrinology, the European Society of Endocrinology, the Society
for Pediatric Urology, the Androgen Excess and PCOS Society, and
the CARES Foundation.
The guidelines are
not concerned with aspects of sexuality, according to Dr.
Phyllis Speiser, who helped draft the document.
"Our main concern is long-term safety to the fetus. There are some trials that have been conducted in animal models that have some potential for long-term consequences," said Speiser, who is chief of pediatric endocrinology at Steven and Alexandra Cohen Children's Medical Center of New York and professor of pediatrics at New York University School of Medicine.
Besides an increased risk of cleft palate, those health concerns
include a slight reduction in birth weight, she said.
"Our objective really is to be able to gather more information so we make sure that we can properly inform the families. Right now it's difficult to say what all the long-term safety concerns might be," Speiser said, adding that the controversy regarding homosexuality was not a factor in the drafting of the new guidelines.
"That's really not in the list of concerns that we have. That's not an objective of this therapy -- it never has been. I don't think that's really on the table here for consideration," Speiser said. "Unfortunately, doctors' intentions may have been misinterpreted."
But Dreger and her colleagues remain concerned that medical
attempts to prevent homosexuality in utero will arise if
researchers determine that sexual orientation is an innate quality
of human biology.
Dreger worries that that knowledge could lead to prenatal
interventions to direct humans toward heterosexual development.
"Evidence that homosexual orientation is inborn could, instead, very well lead to new means of [its] pathologization and prevention, as it seems to be in the case we've been tracking," she and co-writers Ellen K. Feder and Anne Tamar-Mattis wrote in a recent paper on New's research.
Find out more about CAH at the
Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia Education and Support