MIT, Harvard professors admonish use of 'sex assigned at birth'

A hand holds up a small transgender pride flag. The blue and pink stripes represent the colors for a boy and girl, while the white stripe represents self-declared gender identities, such as transitioning, intersex, neutral and undefined gender.
A hand holds up a small transgender pride flag. The blue and pink stripes represent the colors for a boy and girl, while the white stripe represents self-declared gender identities, such as transitioning, intersex, neutral and undefined gender. | Getty Images

Two professors at prestigious universities have condemned the use of the phrase “sex assigned at birth,” saying it harms societal discourse and the understanding of biology. The pair also contend that professional organizations with wide-reaching influence in American society should abandon their embrace of terms viewed as “respectful euphemisms.” 

In an op-ed published by The New York Times titled “The Problem With Saying ‘Sex Assigned at Birth,’” Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor of philosophy Alex Byrne and Harvard University psychology professor Carole Hooven asserted that “sex is a fundamental biological feature with significant consequences for our species, so there are costs to misconceptions about it.”

The professors lamented that the use of the phrase “sex assigned at birth” has exploded in the last decade as “‘sex’ is now often seen as a biased or insensitive word because it may fail to reflect how people identify themselves.” According to Byrne and Hooven, “One reason for the adoption of ‘assigned sex,’ therefore, is that it supplies respectful euphemisms, softening to what some nonbinary and transgender people, among others, can feel like a harsh biological reality.”

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Identifying the promotion of the phrase “sex assigned at birth” as an example of “an increasing emphasis in society on emotional comfort and insulation from offense — what some have called ‘safetyism,’” Byrne and Hooven contended that under this line of thinking, “saying that someone was ‘assigned female at birth’ is taken to be an indirect and more polite way of communicating that a person is biologically female.” They noted that “this terminology can also function to signal solidarity with trans and nonbinary people.”

“The shift to ‘sex assigned at birth’ may be well intentioned, but it is not progress,” they insisted. “We are not against politeness or expressions of solidarity, but ‘sex assigned at birth’ can confuse people and creates doubt about a biological fact when there shouldn’t be any. Nor is the phrase called for because our traditional understanding of sex needs correcting — it doesn’t. This matters because sex matters.”

The article elaborated on the impact of embracing the term “sex assigned at birth” by the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association and the Cleveland Clinic, as well as efforts to suppress “the linguistic tools necessary to discuss” sex: “The Associated Press cautions journalists that describing women as ‘female’ may be objectionable because it can be seen as ‘emphasizing biology,’ but sometimes biology is highly relevant.” 

“The heated debate about transgender women participating in female sports is an example; whatever view one takes on the matter, biologically driven athletic differences between the sexes are real,” Byrne and Hooven wrote. Additional examples of how the traditional understanding of sex “matters for health, safety and social policy” include the facts that “women are nearly twice as likely as men to experience harmful side effects from drugs” while “men are more likely to die from Covid-19 and cancer.”

The professors also pushed back on the idea that using the phrase “sex assigned at birth” is a social good that shows “extra sensitivity” to trans-identified people. Describing the terminology as “misleading,” they asserted that “saying that someone was ‘assigned female at birth’ suggests that the person’s sex is at best a measure of educated guesswork.” 

The professors also maintained that “‘sex assigned at birth’ can also suggest that there is no objective reality behind ‘male’ and ‘female,’ no biological categories to which the words refer.”

“Avoiding ‘sex’ doesn’t serve the cause of inclusivity: not speaking plainly about males and females is patronizing,” Byrne and Hooven asserted. They also suggested that use of terms such as “sex assigned at birth” is unnecessary to secure LGBT rights, as demonstrated by the presence of the term “sex” throughout the United States Supreme Court’s Bostock v. Clayton County decision that found protections against sex discrimination in federal civil rights law extend to sexual orientation and gender identity. 

Warning that terms such as “assigned sex” move “the conversation away from established biological facts and [infuse] it with a sociopolitical agenda” that heightens “social and political divisions,” the professors declared that “we need shared language that can help us clearly state opinions and develop the best policies on medical, social and legal issues.” They called on professional organizations to “change their style guides and glossaries” to promote the use of the term “sex” as opposed to “sex assigned at birth.”

“Journalists, medical professionals, academics and others have the collective power to restore language that more faithfully reflects reality. We will have to wait for them to do that,” they concluded. 

The op-ed published last Wednesday wasn't the first time Byrne and Hooven have spoken out against LGBT ideology. Hooven, who also serves as a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative-leaning think-tank, was scheduled to speak at a panel discussion centered on “why biological sex remains a necessary analytic category in anthropology” last year before it was canceled due to concerns that it would offend the LGBT community.

In 2018, Byrne signed a letter condemning the “suppression” of analysis, raising questions about LGBT ideology. 

Ryan Foley is a reporter for The Christian Post. He can be reached at:

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