Lawyers and policy makers regularly look to biological science research for guidance when legally determining the sex of individuals, and language that can have far-reaching implications for education, civil rights, and health care.
In a peer-reviewed article entitled “Politics Forum” and published in the journal SciencesA group of scientists from Harvard University GenderSci Lab Develop a roadmap to help researchers take extra care when writing or using biological definitions and gender classifications in their work, considering the ways their language can be used in the public arena.
Such definitions have been used, for example, in laws limiting a person’s access to public restrooms based on their sex specified at birth, with criteria based on differences in genes, chromosomes, and anatomy. Similar categorization of biological sex exists in many state and federal policies, sometimes in unexpected places like the 2014 regulation aimed at preventing and detecting sexual abuse and harassment of unaccompanied children, established by the US Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR).
He said, “It may be astonishing for some scholars to realize the prolific extent of these uses of scientific claims about the biology of sex in law.” Sarah RichardsonD., Professor of History of Science and Women’s and Gender Studies and Director of the GenderSci Lab and first interview author for the paper. “These laws in general often appeal to the authority of science that portrays scientific consensus in ways that do not actually reflect the current state of controversy and empirical science in the realm of sex and sexuality.”
To this end, researchers—including first author and associate professor of law at the University of Haifa Ma’an Suday, LLM ’15, SJD ’19—have called on scholars to acknowledge the broader uses of their definitions of gender and associated research findings, often in different contexts. Very far from their original search.
They laid out three broad approaches to scientific research on sexuality often used by those in law and politics: the essentialist, the abolitionist, and the plural. Essentialism assumes strict bisexuality and is often used to support statewide anti-LGBTQ+ laws; The abolition policy aims to remove sexual designations from law and policy and can be seen in initiatives to remove gender from official documents such as driver’s licenses; Pluralism has different definitions of gender in different contexts, such as policies that allow a third gender option in documents and those that support gender categorization as an aid to combating discrimination against certain groups.
“Scientists must act ethically in anticipating how their work will enter the world, including potential legal policy uses of their research,” Richardson said. “They can then better understand the potential consequences of certain choices they make, from research design to research communication.”
The researchers recommended that scientists think carefully about using “sex” as an analysis category at all. This category may not be necessary when studying the relationship between, for example, a health condition and a set of variables such as hormone levels, weight, or anatomy.
“Some ‘gender differences’ in disease or health outcomes have been detected due to factors such as age or body size,” the researchers wrote. “In some well-defined areas of research…the binary system works relatively well to describe variance in humans. However, in many areas, the hypothesis that sex permeates most aspects of human biology and divides humans into two basic species is deeply challenged by research. Scientific.”
Richardson and her colleagues hope that their work in this area will lead to more accurate and clear research results from scientists and reduce misunderstanding and misinterpretation of those results by those in the fields of law and policy.
“Gender differences are important to consider in some areas of research, but sometimes they are included in a way that is not ad hoc, is not well-perspective, or is actually not essential to study design,” Richardson said. “Any way that scientists can become more precise, rigorous, and more mechanistically grounded in the way they use categories, such as males and females, in scientific research can go a long way toward the kind of precise conditioning we recommend.”