Can hermaphrodites get themselves pregnant?

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Dear Cecil: 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


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

I’ll give you credit for one thing, Atrehyeu. You used intersex, the term for those with genital anomalies that many prefer to hermaphrodite, which is a bit too redolent of the freak show for some tastes. In other respects, however, you could stand some serious ignorance intervention.

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 within this category, 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 is different enough from the standard model to be considered intersex.

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 genetically to form one individual — and if you think you’ve got identity issues in your garden-variety life, try coming to terms with that.

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, Connecticut, 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 the first time around.

Could an intersex person get him- / herself pregnant (or as doctors put it, “autofertilize”)? Well, think about the necessities for pregnancy: a sperm, an egg, a way for the two to meet, a uterus for fetal development, and the proper hormone levels to ensure the baby doesn’t turn into a squid. 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 birth don’t happen often, but they happen. Functioning testes are rarer, but again not completely unknown. Functioning ovaries and functioning testes, however, plus functioning everything else — well, I suppose I can propose one far-fetched scenario where it could possibly happen. But as a practical matter: get out. Remember, the idea in intersexuality typically is that you get a mix of male and female pieces. You don’t get two complete sets.

To find a living being that can get itself with child, we need to turn elsewhere in the animal kingdom, and even there the pickings are slim. Hermaphroditism is common in some species; so is having fully functional sets of male and female organs at different stages of life. Despite this, autofertilization is rare, mostly limited to certain earthworms and such. I did come across an oddball case involving an intersex rabbit which, having already birthed more than 250 baby bunnies, became pregnant twice in a row after being placed in isolation. When researchers investigated they found both ovaries and testes (although the latter seemed to be infertile), plus some strange sex chromosomes. What can I say? Nature coughs up some weird shit.

The only way I can imagine self-fertilization happening in a human — and I’m telling you, this one’s a reach — 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 (one’s male and one’s female, right?) and thus have different genes. Third, the chromosome-level mechanics of sexual reproduction (surely you remember that fascinating discussion of meiosis from sophomore biology) 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, it’d be a far cry from a xerox copy.

Cecil Adams

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