Following in the footsteps of a doctor who sexually mutilated girls and then tested their sexual response to sex toys, pediatric endocrinologist Maria New and her collaborator Heino F. L. Meyer-Bahlburg, of Columbia University, have gained notoriety this week for allegedly contemplating drug-based tampering with unborn girls — possibly without the informed consent of the parents.

Outrage over New’s conduct is focused upon her alleged off-label misuse of the steroid dexamethasone. New’s off-label use of the drug to treat congenital adrenal hyperplasia was already controversial: The drug is thought to cause negative side effects in mothers, and it may cause birth defects as well as prevent them. But New and Meyer-Bahlburg, their critics say, do not fully disclose risks to experimentees patients or perform followup.

The notoriety grew considerably with exposure of Meyer-Bahlburg’s comments seemingly promoting the drug as a potential means to inhibit personality traits in girls that are deemed by social conservatives to be reserved for men or lesbians.

 Doctors Contemplate Altering Nonconforming Unborn GirlsThe claims were announced in several venues:

  • an article in Time magazine which noted the permanent damage that dexamethasone has done to unborn lab animals. as well as potential misuse of the drug to bypass parental and social phobia toward gender-variant children rather than to treat any genuine disorder in the children
  • a press release by Northwestern University
  • a related article published by Alice Dreger, Ellen K. Feder, and Anne Tamar-Mattis at the Hastings Center Bioethics Forum, criticizing what they say is New’s unauthorized and unsupervised experimentation upon girls, and calling for federal government investigation.
  • a related commentary by Professor Dreger in Psychology Today
  • a widely shared blog post by Dan Savage
  • articles in the major news media, including United Press International

Dreger and her concerned colleagues warned that proponents of off-label use of dexamethasone have failed to perform rigorous follow-up studies for aftereffects of the drug. They further cite Meyer-Bahlburg’s comments about the drug’s potential to alter girls’ personality as lacking in ethical responsibility.

If the accusations are accurate, then the contemplated misuse of the drug to treat personality would represent a bold extension of the mental-health abuses already committed by antigay and conservative Christian activists against orientation- and gender-variant persons.

Off-label uses of drugs can be life-saving. But like ex-gay ideologists, some doctors and their pharmaceutical sponsors stand to profit from (mis)use of a treatment, particularly when no effort is made to monitor aftereffects and provide followup care that is free of bias.

Like the ideologues of NARTH, New allegedly promotes risky treatment as if it is safe and effective. NARTH counts upon a timid medical establishment to refrain from standing up and condemning its malpractice; are New or Meyer-Bahlburg possibly doing the same?

And critics are alarmed that, again like the ex-gay movement, Meyer-Bahlburg might be using medicine to promote social disorder — specifically, bigotry and discrimination against innocent gender- and orientation-variant people — by treating the innocent and natural as if they are diseased, and by treating unnatural social ignorance and prejudice as if they are innocent and beyond dispute.

In recent years, some among the ex-gay industry leadership at Exodus International have occasionally crept away from the absolutist insistence that sexual orientation is solely defined by bad parenting and abuse. To the limited extent that Exodus has done this, it has held out an unethical hope to bigoted churches that any biological origins for sexual orientation might one day be artificially manipulated by politically correct (evangelical) doctors.

In Meyer-Bahlburg and New, if their professional critics are correct, we may be witnessing a case where medical professionals are willing to dismiss important dangers, mislead parents, and possibly alter the gender and sexuality of the innocent, in pursuit of social or religious objectives that are contrary to sound health.

Apart from concerns about the alteration of politically incorrect personality traits, the controversy over treatment of CAH also touches somewhat upon the distinction between healthy and “disordered” intersex/transgender biology.

Some bloggers have compared this case to that of Nazi physician Josef Mengele. But a more apt and worrisome comparison might be made to the era yet to come: The era of Gattaca, in which — absent any ethical consideration — the unborn are medically manipulated to conform to ostensibly health-oriented social demands.

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The 1997 movie Gattaca was considered by many to be the best science-fiction movie of its decade. The movie warned of what would happen to people who failed, as unborns, to be submitted to re-engineering — and who therefore would fail to conform to social expectations: These people — labeled “de-gene-erates” — were to be discriminated against and exiled from society.

That potential epoch of the master race seemed decades away, 13 years ago — but absent strong social and professional resistance and supervision, it may come sooner than anyone thought possible.