Sunday, August 1, 2021

"Pregnant women"

I have nothing to say here about pregnant women. My title refers to the words “pregnant women,” a phrase not henceforth to be uttered in Harvard’s Department of Human Evolutionary Biology. The permissible phrase is “pregnant people,” so as to include, for example, trans men carrying unborn babies.  

If you think I am writing parody or have launched on some outlandish extrapolation from a more plausible scenario, I am not. Harvard’s Dr. Carole Hooven was interviewed by Fox News; the Daily Mail reprised that interview in this report, and the story was subsequently picked up by the NY Post. Hooven, Lecturer on Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard, argued for retaining use of terms such as “male,” “female,” and “pregnant women” as having scientific meaning. An individual identifying herself as “Director of the Diversity and Inclusion Task Force” in the same department tweeted some responses. That person seems to be a graduate student; as I have no doubt she is just doing her job in the role with which she introduces herself, I will identify her only as DDITF.


Here are a few direct quotations from the interview and responding tweets. Hooven had just published a book about (T: The Story of Testosterone, the Hormone that Dominates and Divides Us), which has gotten some good press. The lead-in was about resistance to using those old terms such as “male” and “female” in teaching biology.




I've been feeling pretty frustrated over the last five years or so. It's been gradual. … This kind of ideology has been infiltrating science. It's infiltrating my classroom, to some extent. … Part of that science is teaching the facts. And the facts are that there are in fact two sexes - there are male and female - and those sexes are designated by the kind of gametes we produce. Do we make eggs, big sex cells, or little sex cells, sperm. And that's how we know whether someone is male or female. And the ideology seems to be that biology really isn't as important as how somebody feels about themselves, or feels their sex to be.


… You know, we can treat people with respect and respect their gender identities and use their preferred pronouns. So understanding the facts about biology doesn't prevent us from treating people with respect.


[It is wrong for professors and the media to] start backing away from using certain terms that they are afraid people will find offensive. And that fear is based in reality. People do find these terms offensive; they do complain on social media; they do shame people and even threaten to get people fired. So it's no wonder that a lot of people are caving and yielding to the social pressure But we are doing students and the public a great disservice, and dividing the populace.




As the Director of the Diversity and Inclusion Task Force for my dept @HarvardHEB, I am appalled and frustrated by the transphobic and harmful remarks made by a member of my dept in this interview with Fox and Friends.


Let’s be clear: if you respect diverse gender identities & aim to use correct pronouns, then you would know that people with diverse genders/sexes can be pregnant incl Trans men, intersex people & gender nonconforming people. That isn't too hard for medical students to understand. Inclusive language like “pregnant people” demonstrates respect for EVERYONE who has the ability to get pregnant, not just cis women. It is vital to teach med students gender inclusive language, as they will certainly interact with people that identify outside the gender binary.  This dangerous language perpetuates a system of discrimination against non-cis people within the med system.


This back and forth seems so absurd that my first instinct is that these two people are simply talking past each other. That the now generally accepted notion of gender as something more complicated than biological sex is agreed to by both, but seen differently. And that while they may disagree about the risk-reward balance of using certain language, Dr. Hooven does not reject the notion of gender identity, and presumably the DDITF would not want (say) a trans woman to be scheduled for a hysterectomy to remove uterus she does not have, no matter how strongly that person identifies as female. 


Such disputes about tone and category are the daily life of academia. As individual academics, both parties are entitled to their opinions. But the DDITF makes clear that she is not speaking as an individual, but as DDITF. What is dangerous is not an evolutionary biology faculty member saying that male and female are meaningful categories; it is someone speaking with institutional authority instructing her not to say so. Whatever one thinks about the gender binary and its discontents, no Harvard official should be telling a faculty member that that her defense of it is prohibited.


Of course no one is being harmed by Hooven’s vocabulary. What is harmful is to classify terms like “pregnant women” in the same category previously reserved for forced hormonal treatments, imprisonment for sodomy, and other legally sanctioned abuses of sexual minorities. It is the sort of thing that trivializes real harms where they continue to exist.


It also infantilizes students to suggest that they should not be allowed to think independently about such matters, that there is only one right way to think, much less talk, about sex and gender. 


I thought I had said my final word on the absurd use of “inclusion and belonging” as Harvard’s pretext for attempting to shut down single-sex student clubs—a pretext which utterly collapsed when it became all that certain that both state and federal courts would find Harvard’s weird interpretation of “inclusion and belonging” to violate sex discrimination statutes. Some will remember that in one of Harvard’s earlier pretexts for the sanctions policy, it was justified on the basis that membership in a single sex club was evidence that the student did not share Harvard’s “deepest values”—pretty much the kind of extrapolation going on here, with the claim that use of the term “pregnant women” is transphobic. 


But now is the moment to bring up an aspect of that earlier debate that has not received much attention. Some Harvard faculty and administrators backed the move against single-gender clubs on the basis that students not conforming to the gender binary would not feel they belonged in either kind of club. That male and female being fictional categories, allowing the existence of clubs restricted to one gender was transphobic on Harvard’s part. An appendix to one of the reports on the clubs presented this argument; it was suppressed when other parts of the report became public. (At the risk of confusing matters further, I am adopting Harvard’s language, which always referred to “single-gender social organizations” to refer to what are commonly known as single-sex clubs. I have no idea how those clubs themselves think about the difference between sex and gender.)


I have never met Dr. Hooven, and had never heard of her until today. Before this controversy, she was already a brave woman for engaging in serious research on the sensitive subject of sex hormones and what they do to us. I hope she sticks to her guns. She is in a vulnerable position; lecturers are reappointed annually, and she serves as co-Director of Undergraduate Studies in her department, which means that (a) her department must think she is good with undergraduates and (b) if the students turn on her, she could be in trouble. (I am reminded of the estimable Sharon Howell, like Hooven a Harvard lecturer with significant administrative responsibilities for undergraduate affairs, who a few years ago spoke truth to power and nonetheless went on to a fine professional career.)


As for the DDITF, as a PhD candidate, she may well be inexperienced in the chess game of academic debate. Perhaps she has already taken a lesson. But perhaps not. There is a large bureaucracy of diversity officers staffing the university under various titles. (My home base, the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, is probably typical; we have an Assistant Dean for Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging.) The mission of these offices, broadly stated, is to increase diversity and to make sure everyone feels welcome. The serious question the Hooven incident raises is whether Harvard sees that mission to include policing language and thought, as the DDITF of Human Evolutionary Biology plainly thought it her job to do. What instructions do these officials receive about where to draw the line between letting language pass, privately inquiring of a faculty member, or launching a public attack? Does Harvard have an index verborum prohibitorum to which diversity officials referand what’s on it?


I would like to know the answer. And my concern is not only theoretical. I am scheduled to teach my “Classics of Computer Science” course next year, and one of the most important papers we read, Fred Brooks’s “The Mythical Man Month” (chapter 40 of Ideas that Created the Future),  uses childbearing as an example. I hope what is always a lively discussion of software engineering does not get sidetracked or worse … 


And I’d like to see 1984 restored as mandatory reading for Harvard students.



  1. Bizzare. The thought police were bad enough in the '90's. Now its comical.

  2. Setting aside the perennial “campus censorship” meta-debate: it isn’t divisive, illiberal, or unscientific to ask a scholar of human behavior to be clear, including in lectures, about whether she means “females” or “women”. Sex and gender are complex and not coextensive, and aspects of each contribute to, e.g., differences in alcohol consumption between (cis)men and women—or, yes, to clinical issues like postpartum depression, where the difference between "pregnant women" and "pregnant people" may well be scientifically as well as socially relevant.

    It is certainly legitimate, and in many cases very useful, for biologists to use a simplistic binary model to cover both sex and gender. When the limitations of this model are raised in class, talking through the strengths and weaknesses of this simplifying assumption should ideally be a teachable moment for modeling scientific thinking—rather than cause for "frustration", or for complaining on national television about trans ideology infiltrating our campuses.