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 Gender, Abigail 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.
According to Simpson, this kind of Frankensteinian organ exchange is now “viable.” In fact, since 2014, around 50 successful uterine transplants have taken place, between biological women, resulting in at least 16 live births. Simpson and others envision a similar process in which the uterus recipient would be a man. In other words, the Stans and Einar Wegeners of the world may soon have the wombs they want, with the ability to have babies.
Would the ability to have children mean that a man could actually become a woman? Setting aside for a moment the awful potential for exploitation of children involved, if science could graft the reproductive system of a female into a male body, and it could function with drugs and hormones, does that make him a woman? A mother?
Of course not, because as Favale explains, a woman cannot be reduced to a function anymore than she can be reduced to a set of clothes, chosen pronouns, certain roles, or cultural stereotypes. Women are not defined only by the ability to have children. Many women can’t, and most women live long enough to lose that ability. Yet, women do not stop being women at menopause.
As Favale aptly describes, a woman is a person whose whole “body-plan” is built around the potential to bear children. It is who and what she is by nature, not what she can do, that makes her a woman. Every cell, strand of DNA, organ, and bone of every woman is designed with childbearing and motherhood in view, regardless of whether these things have happened for her or ever will.
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.
In Wegener’s sad case, and in every so-called “gender affirmation” surgery to this day, the body does not affirm the change but constantly fights to revert to its true plan. Sex is a given, non-negotiable reality, and sexed bodies are one of the things humans receive, are, and can never change. To try to change them in the face of these overwhelming realities is to commit an act of self-destruction and reality denial. To convince someone that what is not possible is possible is to harm and not heal. It’s an illusion that combines postmodern conceit with gnostic ambition.
Men having babies is no longer a laughing matter, if it ever should have been, but the idea that a “womb transplant” makes a man a woman is as absurd as it was before medical technology gave us the power to try.