Republicans get the science behind gender difference wrong in Supreme Court nominee hearing

The ongoing Supreme Court confirmation hearing by Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson has often taken unpredictable directions. In addition to the usual questions about case law, the Supreme Court nominee fielded questions from senators on topics ranging from ‘racist baby’ children’s books to unsubstantiated implications that she is somehow sympathetic to child molesters. . Among the wide range of topics, one line of Republican questioning against Jackson caught the eye — namely, when she was asked to define “woman.”

the series of questions began Tuesday with Senator Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee when she asked Jackson, “Can you give a definition of the word ‘woman’?” When Jackson replied that she was not a biologist, Blackburn denounced her for not giving “a straight answer on something as fundamental as what a woman is”, blaming Jackson’s statement on ” the kind of progressive education we hear about” and decrying how “Our taxpayer-funded institutions allowed a biological male to compete and be a biological female in the NCAA swimming championships.”

Senator Ted Cruz of Texas added to the stack pointing out that he is a Hispanic male and asking if he has decided to identify as Asian, “Would I have the ability to be an Asian male and challenge the discrimination of Harvard because I made this decision?” Like Blackburn, Cruz argued that defining gender is fundamental.

It turns out, however, that Blackburn’s assertion that the definition of a woman is “fundamental” is inaccurate. If there’s one thing scientists agree on today, it’s that the question of what defines a woman – or a man for that matter – is complicated by biology, which lacks definitions too. rigid than Cruz and Blackburn seem to believe. Context is key.


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the complexity is derived from the fact that while people with a Y chromosome are genetically male and people without a chromosome are genetically female, sometimes other parts of the body do not match a person’s genes. A person’s sexual anatomy can differ depending on whether or not they have a Y chromosome. Some are born intersex or have differences or disorders in sexual development. Additionally, as scientists are able to more precisely sequence individual human cells, it has become clear that everyone has cells genetically so distant from each other that their sex may not match the rest of the body. For patients with disorders of sexual development, scientists have identified genetic variations that influence a person’s sex.

“The main problem with a strong dichotomy is that there are in-between cases that push the boundaries and ask us to figure out exactly where the dividing line between men and women is,” said Arthur Arnold of the University of California to Los Angeles, who is studying biology. sex differences, says Scientific American. “And that’s often a very difficult problem, because gender can be defined in so many ways.”

Indeed, scientists who have observed Jackson’s hearing have cringed at Republicans’ harping on his response to Senator Blackburn’s loaded question. “I don’t want to see this question posed to biology as if science can offer a simple, definitive answer,” said Rebecca Jordan-Young, a gender studies scientist and researcher at Barnard College recently. says USA Today. “The rest of her answer was more interesting and important. She said ‘as a judge, what I do is settle disputes.’ If there is a dispute over a definition, people make arguments, and I look at the law, and I decide. ‘ In other words, she said context matters – which is true in both biology and society. I think that’s a pretty good answer for a judge.

Eric Vilain, a clinician and director of the Center for Gender-Based Biology at the University of California, Los Angeles, told Scientific American that instead of a simple genetic or anatomical definition of sex, scientists apply a “view of systems biology” which involves a number of overlapping anatomical, endocrinological and genetic factors.

“My feeling is that since there isn’t one biological parameter that trumps all other parameters, ultimately gender identity seems to be the most reasonable parameter,” Vilain told Scientific American – which means, in other words, the safest bet is simply to let people decide for themselves which gender identity is right for them.

In a sense, the simplest way to imagine genetic identity is to design two networks of genetic activity that compete to determine the sexual biology of an organism. As the molecules in these networks change, a body can develop in a way that is different from what its chromosomes seem to dictate. Likewise, if someone has a condition that affects their sexual development – ​​for example complete androgen insensitivity syndrome, which prevents a person’s cells from responding to male sex hormones – they may have Y chromosomes. and some male anatomical parts, but still having female genitalia and developing as a female at puberty.

The complex science hasn’t stopped right-wing trolls from trying to capitalize on the sexual biology controversy. Commentator Matt Walsh posted an edited Twitter thread to look like he was embarrassing people explaining the complexity of gender and sex.

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“I spoke to academics, doctors, sex reassignment surgeons, therapists, psychiatrists, trans activists and politicians,” Walsh tweeted. “I asked them simple questions and saw gender ideology crumble before my eyes. You’ll soon see it for yourself.”

Geoffrey Ingersoll of The Daily Caller tweeted“It’s wild. KBJ is safe. Even if she said ‘a woman is a human with female sex organs’, she would STILL be named. Direct fear forces her to bend the knee.”

Newsmax contributor Jenna Ellis, who aided former President Donald Trump in his coup attempt after he lost the 2020 election, tweeted that “KBJ is extreme in his positions on criminal law. The same goes for some judges who have been former prosecutors. But that bothers me less than his reluctance to state his judicial philosophy on things like sex and [critical race theory]. She should declare her point of view so that the Senate can do its job.”

Learn more about Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing: