“I said ‘when a woman is pregnant,’ which implies that only women can get pregnant and I most sincerely apologize to all of you.”
It wasn’t the first time Lauren had heard an instructor apologize for using language that, to most Americans, would seem utterly inoffensive. Words like “male” and “female.”
Why would medical school professors apologize for referring to a patient’s biological sex? Because, Lauren explains, in the context of her medical school “acknowledging biological sex can be considered transphobic.”
When sex is acknowledged by her instructors, it’s sometimes portrayed as a social construct, not a biological reality, she says. In a lecture on transgender health, an instructor declared: “Biological sex, sexual orientation, and gender are all constructs. These are all constructs that we have created.”
In other words, some of the country’s top medical students are being taught that humans are not, like other mammals, a species comprising two sexes. The notion of sex, they are learning, is just a man-made creation.
The idea that sex is a social construct may be interesting debate fodder in an anthropology class. But in medicine, the material reality of sex really matters, in part because the refusal to acknowledge sex can have devastating effects on patient outcomes.
In 2019, the New England Journal of Medicine reported the case of a 32-year-old transgender man who went to an ER complaining of abdominal pain. While the patient disclosed he was transgender, his medical records did not. He was simply a man. The triage nurse determined that the patient, who was obese, was in pain because he’d stopped taking a medication meant to relieve hypertension. This was no emergency, she decided. She was wrong: The patient was, in fact, pregnant and in labor. By the time hospital staff realized that, it was too late. The baby was dead. And the patient, despite his own shock at being pregnant, was shattered.