Biology, the Law, and Definitions of Sex (Eric Vilain)

Classification: Law

Media Briefing at American Association for Advancement of Science Symposium on Biology, the Law, and Definitions of Sex (February 18)

Eric Vilain, M.D., Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Human Genetics, Pediatrics and Urology
Chief, Medical Genetics, Department of Pediatrics
Director, Laboratory of Sexual Medicine, Department of Urology
David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA

  1. Recent advances in the genetics of sexual development have shown the extreme complexity of defining males and females from a biological standpoint. There is no one biological parameter that clearly defines sex.
  2. There are differences between male and female brains very early in development. This suggests that sexualization of the brain happens very early during embryonic life.
  3. Laws and policies that restrict the rights of individuals based on their sex are not rooted in biological reality. The definition of sex from a legal standpoint is arbitrary and should not impede the freedom of individuals.
  4. Significant minorities of individuals are left out of simple civil rights because they don’t fit established categories of sex. Intersexed people are hurt by arbitrary definitions of sex. As doctors, we have a responsibility to care for our patients in more ways than just drugs and surgery. Intersex patients are born with a disability that makes sexual intimacy and thus intimate life partnering difficult. If they do end up with a partner whom they wish to marry, that is a great success, and they should not be impeded by irrational laws about definitions of sex. After all, in many cases, we, as doctors have assigned their sex fairly arbitrarily.

If you’re interested in this issue, please also see our FAQ on intersex and the ‘same-sex’ marriage debate.