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Beatie’s Story

Ten years ago, after deciding that she had been born into the wrong body, Tracy Beatie had her breasts removed and received masculinizing hormone treatment. She kept her original reproductive organs, though – apparently thinking all along that she might someday want to use them to have children. Now a man and named Thomas, Beatie got married to Nancy, who, as it turns out, cannot bear children. After stopping the hormones and undergoing several rounds of artificial insemination, Thomas is now pregnant.

The story, brought to public attention on Oprah a couple of weeks ago, is beautiful and exciting to some but has elicited horror in others. Beatie has been vilified on conservative blogs, and MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough says he’s so disgusted, he’s “going to be sick.”

The different views of Thomas Beatie’s pregnancy reflect different views about what’s natural for human beings. This was underscored last week by an editorialist in Nature, who has heard just about enough of “nature” from social commentators and asked them, in effect, to stop talking about it.

The editorial offers two rejoinders to the outrage about Beatie. One is that no moral value can be attached to nature. This is a sweeping response, though, with ramifications for social debates well beyond human body modification. If we decide that we don’t care at all, morally, for what is natural, then we can offer only aesthetic reasons for saving endangered species and “wildernesses.” The concern for endangered species is certainly felt (by those who feel it) as more than an aesthetic position, and if it is only aesthetic, then it doesn’t seem to hold much weight against the economic reasons for letting species and wild spaces pass into oblivion. A more modest position on the moral value of nature would be that nature does not tell us what to value; it is up to us to decide (in a manner of speaking) what we value about nature.

The other rejoinder is that Beatie’s experience is not unnatural. “When we consider this story with the reasoning parts of our brains, exactly what was so ‘unnatural’? The longing to have a baby? [But] that is a profoundly human desire, whether the prospective parents are male, female or transgendered.” And if it’s the transgendered part that’s bothering you, the editorial adds, then you should know that gender-straddling and switching behavior is now known to be common throughout the animal world, including the human part of it.

One interesting thing about this response is that it suggests some things we might value about nature. Beatie’s story is “profoundly human.” It evinces desires and commitments that we are proud to claim as part of human nature.

The Nature editorial’s oblique appeal to human nature shows different layers in the debate about whether nature is valuable and what is valuable in it. Much of the debate about the moral value of human nature dwells on fairly specific claims: the category “humans” is comprised of “male” and “female”; it is natural for men to be like this and women like that,with these abilities and aptitudes; it is natural for men and women to join in families with this kind of structure, then to have children, then to die; and so on. Many of these claims are about limitations, in one way or another–the subcategories into which we fall, the trajectories to which we are assigned, the outcomes we can expect.

They are also highly debatable. They may conflate social expectations with real human characteristics, they may simply get the facts wrong, and people may have very different views about those facts. They emphasize uniformity where variability and individuality might be the more important and attractive points to make.

The more compelling characteristics of “human nature” are more general: desire, love, commitment – even beyond that, a sense of selfhood and a sense of value. They reflect basic human capacities, not limitations. They are present to different degrees in different people, and sometimes seem notable chiefly for their absence, but by and large they seem integral to any human life. All of them are part of Beatie’s story.

These broader features of human nature rarely come up in discussions about what we would try to get rid if we had free rein to enhance ourselves. My sense is that they are so integrally part of human life that it’s hard to envision human life without them, and whose value is too obvious to be in question.

If this is right, then the concept “human nature” cannot be put to the use Joe Scarborough wants to make of it. On the other hand, it also cannot be dismissed as useless, as the Nature editorial admonishes: “Nature” in the world around us has acquired moral value only now that we have acquired the ability to extinguish it. Similarly, perhaps we will someday find that “human nature” has some moral value, if and when we are able to create beings that lack the basic human capacities that we value. But as the story of Thomas Beatie makes clear, pregnant transgendered men are not at all transhuman.

Published on: April 16, 2008
Published in: Health and Health Care, Humans and Nature

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