frgavin on October 5th, 2015

3116690684Question : When a human with XY chromosomes contributes sperm towards the conception of a child, are they are the father or mother of the consequential child?

Answer : It’s a bit complicated…

Peter Ould writes: The news this week that transgender model Fay Purdham is asking for donations to help her conceive a child with her sperm that was frozen before surgery raises a number of interesting ethical and theological questions for Christians to grapple with. Caroline Farrow has already accused Purdham of a “disturbed mentality” in wanting to be both (biological) father and (nurture) mother to her child. Others have use the language of narcissism, in that this appears to be a highly self-indulgent act on behalf of Purdham.

I want to step away from the immediate case at hand and instead ask us to consider the wider implications of what is being proposed, especially within a framework of Christian anthropology. The notion of parenthood and procreation lies at the heart of the biblical motif of marriage. The sexual union of husband and wife is used as an allusion to the union of Christ and his Church, and for centuries, nay, millennia we have understood that it is the combination of the male (sperm) and female (ovum) gametes that creates life. At the heart of this understanding is the idea that it takes a man to make sperm and a woman to make ovum. Life cannot begin without first a man and a woman seeking to bring it into being.

Modern gender theory changes all that. Now we have a 21st Century society where gender and sex are not the same and where some choose to “change” their sex to bring it into alignment with their perceived gender. Of course, whilst some sex change surgery and medication (including hormone therapy) does bring about visual changes, any individual undergoing such a transformation still remains chromosomally who there were before. An individual transiting from male to female for example, may be able to remove their male genitalia (and replace it with a physical vagina), have some success in permanent hair removal, and with the assistance of surgery and/or hormone treatment can even have breasts, but deep within their sex chromosomes are still XY and crucially they do not have any functioning procreative female sex organs. Behind a vaginoplasty there is a lack of a womb and ovaries.

This basic physical fact is at the heart of the dilemma in the Purdham case. Fay wants to conceive a child, but she is anatomically incapable of doing so. For this reason she has stored her sperm (from when she had male genitalia) and now she wants to use that to help produce her child. Is this an appropriate thing to do?

Let’s take a step back and consider what the Christian views of transgenderism are. There are broadly three main positions that I am aware of (though there may more and of course individuals hold these stances with subtlety). The first is a very “traditional” stance which says that God made people male and female and that therefore any attempt to change one’s sex is an act of idolatory and rebellion against God. In its favour, this position takes a high view of Scriptural anthropology and seeks to honour it. Counting against it, this position appears not to engage with the reality of a fallen world.

A second “liberal” position would be to say that God has created human beings in a number of diverse ways and that some people are born with a disconnect of gender and sex. Sex change restores the union of the two. In its favour, this position appears to be pastorally sensitive, though of course there is increasing disquiet even amongst the pioneers of sex change surgery as to whether it actually achieves the mental health outcomes it sets out to achieve. In criticism, this position appears to have a far too dualistic view of the divide between body and mind, and there is also the lack of a real engagement with a coherent doctrine of the Fall in the assumption that the natal diversity of humanity is a good thing per se.

A third position lies somewhere between this, a view described as “redemptive”. It views experiences like gender dysphoria as part of the Fall and remains open to the possibility that sex change surgery might actually be a good thing because it is seeking to make better that which is corrupted. Besides this openness to transformation, it also questions whether what does experiencing reporting as gender dysphoria is actually a physical phenomenon, or whether it might actually be purely psychosomatic, a result not of mismatched gender and sex but rather rooted in childhood trauma that has caused a detachment from one’s core (genetic) sexual identity.

What you think is happening in gender dysphoria will ultimately shape your view of what sex, procreation and parenthood is about. For those who take the second position above, the diversity of gender and sex in human experience means that strict traditional boundaries of male and female in procreation and family structures are not necessary prescriptive for modern society. Whilst this liberation appears attractive, it raises a major challenge to Christian anthropology. The distinctness of male and female, of husband and wife, is a vibrant motif running throughout scripture. From the first couple in Eden, distinguished in their sexual difference and commanded to utilise it in procreation, to the icon of marriage of husband and wife as the union of Christ and his Church, to the great Wedding Feast at the end of time, men being men and women being women is core to an understanding of these icons of salvation. In the Bible, marriage is not just about the union of two people; it is about the procreative union of two differing individuals who, in their potential to create new life speak powerfully of Jesus bringing new life to his people where they are dead in their sins. Take away the possibility of procreation, remove the duality of the sexes, and the metaphor fails.

So we return to the possibility of a transgender woman providing her previously frozen sperm to be one constituent part of a conception. How does this scenario interact with the Biblical motif of procreative union as the icon of the saving work of Jesus? Is Purdham here operating as the male or the female in the picture? If she is providing sperm, is she acting as the male, the image of Christ? If she wishes to live as a female, is she now acting as the female, the image of the Church? Does the Church need someone beyond itself to create new life? Can it exist without Christ? Is Christ determined to bring new life outside of the Church? Does he even care about her?

Perhaps a fuller Christian answer, faithful to the Scriptural icons of salvation but also open to the possibility of restoring a fallen world, is found in our third “redemptive” perspective. It understands that the Bible does have clear imagery of the separation and distinctiveness of male and female, of their sexual procreative union as a powerful icon of the work of Jesus. At the same time, it recognises that we live in a fallen world, that for some people their sexual identity is corrupted or frustrated, and that a sex change may actually be a path towards completion in Christ, not a rejection of it. However, this redemptive view understands male and female to be (ideally) two distinct identities, so the attempt at redemption is not to mix the two as though the differences are unimportant, but rather to accept the differences and to live them out. This means that a male to female transgender person should seek as much as possible to be the sex they have chosen to transit into. If you are now female (as perhaps you should be), why do you need to keep your sperm? If you are male, why keep ovum? These are acts of holding onto the past, not living in the now and future of Christ’s resurrection life, changing us to the perfection we were created for. If as a male to female transgender person my resurrection identity will be truly female, why am I holding on to the corrupted former self?

Of course, this means that practically everyone who transits sex will not be able to conceive their own biological children, but this is already the case for many who have never struggled with sexual identity issues but still find themselves unable to conceive. The reality is that we do live in a fallen world, that we are all broken people in a number of different ways, sexually, relationally, genetically, psychologically. Christ redeems us and makes us who he intended us always to be and sometimes we are privileged to see part of that in our mortal lives. At the same time though we are not yet in that eternal kingdom of perfection, and as faithful disciples we need to live within the constraints of this fallen world. Our aim as followers of Jesus is to speak of his saving work, not just with our tongues but with our very lives, including our sexual lives.

new-peterTo try and merge male and female identities is to destroy the very distinctiveness which is at the heart of basic Christian anthropology. In the Biblical world view, men are men and women are women, even when modern technology and understanding has helped those whose maleness or femaleness needed a helping hand getting there. The perversity of what Purdham is asking us to help her do is not the act of changing sex, but rather in not living out that which she has now, at possibly great personal expense, already achieved.

Fay Purdham is now a woman and women have a particular role in the icon of Christ’s work with his people. To want to be a man again in fathering a child rather undermines everything she has gone through, and Christians who support her in wanting to father a child rather undermine everything Christ has gone through.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.