Advocation of In-Utero Steroidal Drug Use Violates Women’s Rights in Every Way Imaginable

Children of Thalidomide

The first time I ever heard of the drug thalidomide was thanks to the Billy Joel song, “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” For the longest time, it was just another term in the lyrics that didn’t make much sense to me. That is, until I did a school history project on the song and learned what all the names, places and terms have to do with history.

Just for a refresher – in case you never had such a history project and also was born too late to really learn much about this tragedy – thalidomide was a sedative drug prescribed to pregnant women from 1957 to 1961 in order to combat morning sickness and aid sleep. It must have worked, because it was prescribed for four years. However, it also worked at causing birth defects.

Thanks to the drug, more than 10,000 children in 46 countries were born with deformities, such as phocomelia, which is the underdevelopment of limbs and appendages. Of course, exact numbers can’t be known, but it is estimated that up to 20,000 total were born.

One positive outcome of this tragedy, however, was that it resulted in the need for much stricter testing before being introduced for drug and pesticide testing. Thankfully, nothing like that should ever happen again.


In a recent paper published in the Journal of Bioethical Inquiry by Alice Dreger, professor of clinical medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern University, it is revealed that something much worse has been going on. Perhaps it hasn’t affected as many people, but it has been going on with full knowledge of the consequences, of which both the intentional and unintentional ones are just awful.

The women being given the drug called dexamethasone are carriers of a rare genetic trait called congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH). And the horrendous effects of this genetic disorder are that their daughters *might* be born with intersex or more male-typical genitals and brains.

In short, the women taking this drug want to avoid having daughters who are lesbians and/or tomboys.

If that isn’t egregious enough, dexamethasone is a synthetic steroid much like thalidomide that is known to potentially cause major birth defects. For more than 10 years, medical societies have warned about this off-label use of the drug. Yet, mothers offered the choice have been told it “has been found safe for mother and child” though there is no scientific evidence of this fact. Actually, a recent study from Sweden reports nearly 20 percent of the children exposed in utero have “serious adverse events.”

What’s even worse is that the drug must be given well before it is known whether or not the fetus carries the congenital defect. In fact, it has to be given even before it is known whether or not it is a girl. So nearly 90 percent of the fetuses exposed to it could not possibly benefit, if avoiding masculine tendencies is even a “benefit.”

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, the government is well aware of the situation. Actually,the National Institutes of Health has funded research to see if these attempts to prevent “behavioral masculinization” are “successful.”

About bigkingken

A science writer dedicated to proving that the Big Ten - or the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, if you will - is more than athletics.
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2 Responses to Advocation of In-Utero Steroidal Drug Use Violates Women’s Rights in Every Way Imaginable

  1. Emily Cronin-Furman says:

    I agree that this is a huge bioethical issue when it comes to preventing “behavioral masculinization” in female fetuses; however, children born with CAH can be afflicted by more than just masculine behaviors. (I only know this because I have a few neuroscience grad school friends who studied sexual differentiation in mice and thanks to psych of gender class in college) I would also agree that being born with CAH is not nearly as bad as being born with limb deformities, BUT CAH does affect more than sexual orientation. In this case, the ethics behind this treatment are definitely a little strange, yet preventing CAH and some of the more severe side effects is certainly a worthwhile area of research.

    • bigkingken says:

      Wow thanks for the great info, Eemily! Certainly sounds like research worth pursuing then. Just don’t know why they’d tell women its completely safe if its not.

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