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Opinion | The Problem With Saying ‘Sex Assigned at Birth’

Opinion | The Problem With Saying ‘Sex Assigned at Birth’

Contrary to what we might assume, avoiding “sex” doesn’t serve the cause of inclusivity: not speaking plainly about males and females is patronizing. We sometimes sugarcoat the biological facts for children, but competent adults deserve straight talk. Nor are circumlocutions needed to secure personal protections and rights, including transgender rights. In the Supreme Court’s Bostock v. Clayton County decision in 2020, which outlawed workplace discrimination against gay and transgender people, Justice Neil Gorsuch used “sex,” not “sex assigned at birth.”

A more radical proponent of “assigned sex” will object that the very idea of sex as a biological fact is suspect. According to this view — associated with the French philosopher Michel Foucault and, more recently, the American philosopher Judith Butler — sex is somehow a cultural production, the result of labeling babies male or female. “Sex assigned at birth” should therefore be preferred over “sex,” not because it is more polite, but because it is more accurate.

This position tacitly assumes that humans are exempt from the natural order. If only! Alas, we are animals. Sexed organisms were present on Earth at least a billion years ago, and males and females would have been around even if humans had never evolved. Sex is not in any sense the result of linguistic ceremonies in the delivery room or other cultural practices. Lonesome George, the long-lived Galápagos giant tortoise, was male. He was not assigned male at birth — or rather, in George’s case, at hatching. A baby abandoned at birth may not have been assigned male or female by anyone, yet the baby still has a sex. Despite the confusion sown by some scholars, we can be confident that the sex binary is not a human invention.

Another downside of “assigned sex” is that it biases the conversation away from established biological facts and infuses it with a sociopolitical agenda, which only serves to intensify social and political divisions. We need shared language that can help us clearly state opinions and develop the best policies on medical, social and legal issues. That shared language is the starting point for mutual understanding and democratic deliberation, even if strong disagreement remains.

What can be done? The ascendance of “sex assigned at birth” is not an example of unhurried and organic linguistic change. As recently as 2012 The New York Times reported on the new fashion for gender-reveal parties, “during which expectant parents share the moment they discover their baby’s sex.” In the intervening decade, sex has gone from being “discovered” to “assigned” because so many authorities insisted on the new usage. In the face of organic change, resistance is usually futile. Fortunately, a trend that is imposed top-down is often easier to reverse.

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