Is there such a thing as a true intersex person? If so, could they get themselves pregnant? Would their baby be a clone? —Atrehyeu, via e-mail
I’ll give you credit for one thing. You used intersex, the term for those with genital anomalies that many prefer to hermaphrodite, which is too redolent of the freak show for some tastes.
Strictly defined, intersexuality is when someone’s genitals are either ambiguous or combine male and female elements. Attempts have been made to tease out fine distinctions, including true hermaphrodites, male pseudohermaphrodites, and female pseudohermaphrodites. However you sort it out, this is a pretty exclusive group—something like one person in 5,000.
Intersexuality is almost always the result of a genetic disorder. Some conditions, such as androgen insensitivity syndrome (where a genetic male baby can’t process male hormones and grows up female) or Klinefelter syndrome (where males are born with an extra X chromosome), have only a modest impact on quality of life—hell, a few people have parlayed their genetic idiosyncrasies into Olympic gold.
Other conditions present more serious challenges. One reads of gonads that are combinations of male and female parts, women born without a vagina, even a few folks born with both a penis and a vagina. One especially unusual type of intersex person is known as a chimera, which results when male and female embryos meld together.
Historically those not falling into one of the two traditional sex buckets have had a tough time of it. The tale is told of a Scottish intersex person, living as a female servant in the 1600s, who was buried alive as punishment for the crime of impregnating at least one of her master’s daughters.
Another case involved a close local election in Salisbury, Conn., in 1843, when one Levi Suydam applied to vote as a Whig. The opposition objected, claiming Levi was female—women wouldn’t get the right to vote for another 80 years. Doctors called in to scrutinize the hanging chad, as it were, found Levi had a mix of sexual equipment but decided he was mostly male. His ballot was counted and the Whigs won by one vote. On further examination some days later, though, it was discovered that Levi had been menstruating for years and sported a set of “well developed mammae” which the doctors had somehow missed.
Could an intersex person get him/ herself pregnant (or as doctors put it, “autofertilize”)? Think about the necessities for pregnancy: a sperm, an egg, a way to meet, a uterus and proper hormone levels. Most intersex folks are unable to provide at least one of these critical bits. Surveys suggest functioning ovaries are fairly common in the intersexed; pregnancy and birthdo happen rarely. Functioning testes are rarer, but again not completely unknown. Functioning ovaries and functioning testes, however, plus functioning everything else—get out.
Hermaphroditism is common in some species. Despite this, autofertilization is rare, mostly limited to certain earthworms and such.
The only way I can imagine self-fertilization happening in a human is in a chimerical individual, formed of two embryos that fused. Would the child of such a person be a clone? Of course not, nudnik. First, you’d have to duplicate the genetics of an individual whose makeup was, by definition, an irreproducible accident. Second, the two fused embryos would be fraternal twins and thus have different genes. Third, the chromosome-level mechanics of sexual reproduction would ensure that the genetic deck got a good honest shuffle. So while the child of an autofertilizing hermaphrodite would certainly be a close relative of its parent, itd be a far cry from a xerox copy. cs
by cecil adamsComments, questions? Take it up with Cecil on the Straight Dope Message Board, straightdope.com, or write him at the Chicago Reader, 11 E. Illinois, Chicago 60611.