If You Give a Man a Womb, Is He a Woman?

If You Give a Man a Womb, Is He a Woman?

No amount of medical mangling or foreign organs can change a man’s body into a woman’s, even if it allows him to gestate, because his body-plan remains male in every cell, every chromosome, every organ, and every bone. A transplanted uterus no more makes him a “complete woman” than sewing on gills would make him a fish.  

Forty years ago, Monty Python’s Life of Brian mocked a male character who wanted to become a woman and have babies. “You haven’t got a womb, [Stan]!” John Cleese’s character reminds him. “Where’s the fetus going to gestate? You going to keep it in a box?”   

For the most part, men who identify as women (and vice-versa) accept that no amount of cross-dressing, hormones, or surgery can allow them to play the opposite sex’s role in reproduction. As Cleese rightly observed, men can’t have babies because they haven’t got wombs. 

But what if they did? What if medical science enabled “womb transplants,” giving men the ability to carry and bear children within their bodies? Would that make them women?  

In her book, The Genesis of GenderAbigail Favale tells the story of the first real-life attempt at a “womb transplant,” which took place in Germany in 1931. Danish artist Einar Wegener, who went by the name “Lili,” was obsessed with becoming a “complete” woman. For him, that meant the ability to carry and bear children.  

Wegener turned to Magnus Hirschfeld, a German physician who invented the term “transsexual.” In four grisly surgeries, Hirschfeld removed Wegener’s male genitalia and transplanted a cadaver uterus into his body. Predictably, Wegener’s body rejected the organ, and he died shortly thereafter. That tragic ending to Wegener’s story didn’t stop Hollywood from celebrating him as a so-called “transgender pioneer” in the 2015 movie, The Danish Girl. 

In the 1930s, the technology to do successful “womb transplants” didn’t exist. What about today? In a recent talk, Alicyn Simpson of the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center Children’s Hospital described the possibility of uterine transplants, this time from live donors 

Citing a number of studies, Simpson (a man who describes himself as a woman) concluded that most men who identify as women would be interested in a uterine transplant. A potential source, Simpson said, are women who “don’t want” their “parts” anymore because they hope to be men.  

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