The Daily Mail never fails to live down to my expectations. It’s a century-old London tabloid, and it’s guilty of some of the worst sensationalist excesses of the type. Its online content is shared widely and uncritically all over the Internet, and its casual approach to the facts has earned it the nickname “The Daily Fail.” Several web pages are devoted to documenting its sins.
One recent headline caught my eye. It ran on January 30:
Holding their two little miracles at home: The woman born a MAN and told she would never conceive cradles twin girls with her husband
The woman, a Londoner named Hayley Haynes, was not “born a man.” No one is born a man, or a woman, for that matter; everyone is born a baby. The headline draws from the fact, reported in the story, that Mrs Haynes is chromosomally XY, like most males, and not XX, like most females. The Daily Mail’s error is in equating XY chromosomes with being “a man,” or at least male. This is an error because sex chromosomes do not solely determine a person’s sex or gender; they are only one of many contributing factors.
If I’m sensitive to this fallacy of genetic essentialism, it’s because it’s probably the argument most often used by transphobic bigots to deny the reality of transgender people’s lives. You see it most often in Internet comments on news stories, like this one in a USA Today story about a transgender teenager:
Incidentally, I find it fascinating that fundamentalist Christians put such great stock in genetics when they can use it to justify their transphobia, but are ready to scoff when it lends evidentiary weight to Darwinian evolution (and I did find other comments by the commenter above that indicate he is also a creationist).
Anyway, according to the Daily Mail and all the other news stories I found about Haynes’s pregnancy (most of which had less lurid headlines), she has Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS). Individuals with this condition have XY chromosomes, but their bodies are either partially or completely unable to make use of testosterone, so they never develop male sexual characteristics, are usually phenotypically female, and usually have a female gender identity. Most never even learn they’re different from other girls until they reach puberty, don’t experience menarche, and go to the doctor to find out why.
The typical treatment for AIS is hormone replacement therapy with female hormones such as estrogen and progesterone. Also, it’s common for people with AIS to have undescended, vestigial testicles, and these are surgically removed, since they don’t work and can only cause trouble.
The Telegraph’s reportage of Mrs Haynes’s case, headlined “Woman born with no womb gives birth to miracle twins,” includes this:
Hayley Haynes had the miracle babies, Avery and Darcey, after hormone therapy enabled her to grow a womb.
She was told at the age of 19 that she would never be able to give birth as she had no womb, ovaries or Fallopian tubes.
But nine years on she has given birth to the twins after IVF treatment using an egg donor.
Another London paper, The Mirror, seems to have broken the story. Every other version I’ve found credits The Mirror as its ultimate source.
This story caught my attention because, despite the “no womb” headlines, most papers report several paragraphs down that Haynes had a tiny “remnant” or vestigial uterus, which developed and became viable under the influence of HRT.
I know a fair bit about AIS and other intersex conditions, by dint of my years of autodidactic study of gender and sex, and as I understand it, this is not possible. An individual with AIS will not have a uterus or any other female reproductive organs. I didn’t take my own word for it; here’s a quote from the Intersex Society of North America’s FAQ:
“In an individual with complete AIS and karyotype 46 XY…the fetus lacks uterus, fallopian tubes, and cervix plus upper part of vagina. However, because cells fail to respond to testosterone, the genitals differentiate in the female, rather than the male pattern…”
I added the bolding. I checked several other reputable databases of medical information, including the United Kingdom’s National Health Service, the U.S. National Library of Medicine, and the Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome Support Group (AISSG). There’s no wiggle room among any of their definitions; a woman with AIS will not have a uterus, so it’s simply not possible, with current medical technology, for her to bear children.
I sent an email to AISSG asking for their take on this story. I got a reply from a representative who was happy to discuss this, but prefers to remain anonymous. I was informed that the AIS community is very aware of the Haynes case, and has much discussed it.
On the question of its accuracy, the spokesperson’s feedback was detailed and technical, beyond the scope of this blog, so I won’t share it here, but the upshot is, while it’s just barely within the realm of possibility for this story to have happened the way it was reported, any instance of it is unrecorded in the medical literature. As far as anyone knows, an individual with AIS has never possessed a functional uterus. The spokesperson said it’s much more likely instead that Mrs Haynes has Swyer Syndrome, a different XY condition in which a uterus and Fallopian tubes may be present.
There’s no way to be certain what’s going on, short of contacting Mrs Haynes and her doctors (if even then), and I’d never invade her privacy any further for something so trivial as a blog post. Most versions of the story do quote a fertility doctor, a Dr Geetha Venkat, but there’s no indication she’s Mrs Haynes’s doctor, and all she adds is that Mrs Haynes’s pregnancy is “amazing.” Which we didn’t need a doctor to tell us.
So these seem to be the possibilities:
1. This is a vanishingly rare, perhaps unprecedented, case of an AIS individual born without a uterus who grew a uterus in adulthood, carried twins to term, and gave birth, and we’ve learned about it, not from a paper in the Lancet or Nature, but from the London tabloid press.
2. Mrs Haynes has a condition other than AIS, a documented condition in which a uterus was present at birth, but was misdiagnosed with AIS.
3. Mrs Haynes has a condition other than AIS or another intersex syndrome, and the story was misreported. By The Daily Mail and other London tabloids more interested in shocking headlines than in truth.
I reported; you decide.
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