Gender Confusion in One Easy Step


With same-sex marriage, we saw the advent of arguments for “genderless parenting” – the idea that all a child needs is love and it’s irrelevant whether the loving persons are male or female. Now we have “genderless kids.” Kathy Witterick and David Stocker, the parents of Jazz (5), Kio (2) and three-month-old Baby Storm want to rear and love each of their children, not as daughter or son, not as a girl or a boy, but as just their child.

Now, at one level, that’s not a bad thing. It’s a statement of unconditional love for one’s child, simply because he or she is one’s child, and it stands as a small counter-statement to the abomination of the millions of missing girls in India and China, where daughters are aborted or killed as infants, because the parents want a son.

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But, as the Supreme Court of Canada, citing the United States Supreme Court, once said in distinguishing what parents were free to decide with respect to their own medical treatment, as compared with what they could decide for their children, “Parents may be free to become martyrs themselves. But it does not follow they are free, in identical circumstances, to make martyrs of their children.”

So are Kathy Witterick and David Stocker making martyrs of their children? Is their conduct with respect to their children unethical? And if it is, does society have any obligations? These are difficult questions to answer, but first some definitions and facts.

A person’s sex is a matter of biology: women have two X sex chromosomes, and men have XY (there are other combinations, such as XXY or XO, but these are not the norm and the people with them are usually infertile). Gender is the cultural expression of male and female and for most people gender parallels their biological sex.

Media reports quote the parents, Witterick and Stocker, as wanting their children to be “gender creative.” In trying to further this goal, they allow the two older boys “to make their own choices” with respect to clothing and hair styles (they wear pink feather boas, dresses and braids). As a result the boys are often mistaken for girls and other children do not want to play with “that girl-boy.”

The sex of the baby, Storm, has not been disclosed to anyone other than the midwives who delivered him, a close family friend, and his/her father and two siblings, who have been told to keep it secret (which also raises ethical issues). They refer to the baby as “Z,” not he or she. Even the grandparents don’t know Storm’s sex.

To analyze this situation, ethically and legally, the basic presumption from which we start is that the parents have a right to make decisions concerning their children and obligations to them in doing so. That right can be displaced, however, when the parents’ conduct constitutes neglect or abuse. My guess is that most people would be very reluctant to argue that’s the case here, but, at the same time, many believe that these children are going to have a difficult path in life, as a result of the nature of their upbringing. So what do we need to consider in trying to gain some insights as to whether the parents’ present approach is acceptable?

The parents seem to believe that children “can make choices to be whoever they want to be,” including regarding their gender, and they are giving them the opportunity to do this. Are the parents, however, conducting a social experiment on their children – as it’s been described – “a social experiment of nurture”? If so, the principles governing experimentation are especially stringent when children are the subjects, because they are classified as “vulnerable persons.” Ethics requires that where there is a conflict that prevents honouring everyone’s rights or claims, we must decide so as to give a preference to the most vulnerable people.

As with all experimentation, we can only find out later what harm may result, but we have obligations, at the least, to avoid reasonably foreseeable harm and we might learn from past unethical experimentation in this regard. Sexologist and psychologist, Dr. John Money’s experiment on David Reimer is a tragic example. In the infamous case, Reimer was sexually reassigned after a botched circumcision that destroyed his penis. Money reported the reassignment as successful, and as evidence that gender identity is primarily learned, but later research showed Reimer never identified as female, and he began living as male at age 15. He lived a tormented life and finally committed suicide.

I suggest that we might also gain insights from asking: “Are the parents doing this for the kids, as they claim, or are they doing it for themselves?” My guess is that they would say and probably believe it’s for the kids, but that the main motivation is their own ideological and political beliefs. When the adults’ beliefs in such regards and the “best interests” of the children are concordant, there is no problem, but when they clash there is. The conflict situation can be compared to that of a physician asking a patient to participate in a medical experiment. Long ago, as a protective measure, we started to teach patients to ask doctors who approached them to be research subjects: “Are you doing this for me doctor or am I doing it for you?” These kids need someone to ask their parents that question for them.

It merits noting that there is an ethical difference between parents having children who are non-conformist in some ways and intentionally making them non-conformist, as in this case. As well, choosing not to choose for the child is a choice by the parents.

The strong emphasis of the parents on the idea of choice and on giving their children choice, even at such a young age, is also noteworthy. In many ways it seems naïve.  It is a rejection of the belief that there is a natural reality, including with respect to our own selves, with which we need to live in harmony and balance. Far from everything that makes each of us as we are and matters to us as human beings is open to choice. The new field of epigenetics is showing us, from one scientific perspective, just how complex the interaction of nature and nurture is in forming who we are and who we become.

There is also arrogance in ignoring millennia of human wisdom of what we need to become as fully actualized persons as we can be. Before the “choice armies” come after me, let me quickly add this does not mean that we must not change or not continue to evolve socially, including with regard to respect for girls and women, but in seeking to do good, we must be careful that we do not do serious harm to individuals or society.

Finally, in the context of some other work I’m involved in from time to time, it’s interesting to note that the most socially liberal parents (such as Storm’s parents) and the most socially conservative ones (for example, those who want strict obedience from their children and to use corporal punishment) both want the state to keep right out of the family. Strange bedfellows! But society always has residual obligations to protect its children.


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  • Margaret Somerville

    Samuel Gale Professor of Law, Professor in the Faculty of Medicine and the Founding Director of the Faculty of Law’s Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University.

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