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Neuroethics Can Help Scientists Use Sex As A Biological Variable

By Kristie Garza

Image courtesy of Pixabay.

Feminist neuroethics is a relatively new sub-field in the burgeoning field of neuroethics. Feminist neuroethicists study the ethical implications of neuroscientific findings based on sex and gender. As scientists learn more about sex and gender differences in the brain, it becomes increasingly critical to assess the societal implications of these neuroscientific findings; thereby necessitating feminist neuroethics. The necessity for feminist neuroethics is evident as a critical framework for discussing policies of neuroscience research of sex differences. I specifically became aware of this necessity by working on a project that examined both the scientific and social effects of a recent policy change.

I worked with Dr. Deboleena Roy, Neuroscience Professor and Chair of the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Department at Emory University on a National Science Foundation (NSF) funded project. The project examined how neuroscientists and social justice advocates are responding to the National Institute of Health (NIH) policy change requiring the use of sex as a biological variable in preclinical studies. While this policy directly affects scientists by influencing research practices, the conclusions from these changing research practices also affect society and consequentially, social justice. For these reasons, both neuroscientists and social justice advocates are stakeholders in the production of knowledge based on this policy change, which is why we designed our project to start a conversation between these two groups. Specifically, we interviewed top experts in the fields of sex-difference neuroscience and reproductive social justice. We asked individuals from both groups questions with similar themes in an attempt to understand each field’s perspective on the NIH policy. Through this research, we identified gaps between researchers studying sex differences in neuroscience and advocates studying societal implications of this work. In this post, I argue for the necessity of neuroethics in this conversation. As feminist scholars have previously suggested, neuroethics, specifically feminist neuroethics, provides a unique avenue to fill this existing gap between neuroscience research in the laboratory and societal implications of the work (Chalfin, Murphy, and Karkazis 2008; Roy 2012).

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Our interviewers strove to understand how science and society are impacted by research (or lack thereof) of sex as a biological variable. In listening to these interviews, I noticed language choice to be a key contributor to a gap between scientists and advocates. While both may be interested in similar topics, there is little overlap in the vocabulary used between these two groups of knowers. For example, while neuroscientists may describe sex as XX or XY chromosomes, social justice advocates will describe sex as a binary heteronormative frame—as a connection, a behavior, or even an avenue for power and control. Neuroethics is, at its core, an interdisciplinary field, thereby providing an existing toolbox to build a specific bridge between the two groups to better understand each other.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

I also see a place for feminist neuroethics in the development of pedagogical methods and training of young neuroscientists, as our scientific training provides the foundation for future science. For example, neuroscience students learn that a fetus develops into a male through an “active” differentiation process, with induction of male genes “which prevent execution of the default program and initiative the process of male gonadal differentiation.” Female differentiation is referred to as “the default mode” and the presence of the Y chromosome is a “crucial determinant” (Kandel, Schwartz, and Jessell 2000). This paradigm, where the female is understood through her lack, is taught without thought to the implications of this language. Gendered language and paradigms can carry more weight than scientists realize (Briere and Lanktree 1983). In this case, “active” and “default” can leave heavy connotations in the minds of young students when planning future studies. Implying that female development is “passive,” for example, can be portrayed as an innate submissive position or an inactivity rooted in biology. Similar issues have been addressed by feminist neuroethists. For example, Cordelia Fine has commented on the possible effects of implying “hardwired” sex differences reported from neuroscience. In her paper, she explains that science does not operate in a bubble, and neuroscientific findings may in fact contribute to bias and stereotypes regardless of the scientific validity of the work.

Neuroethics provides a framework to build a bridge between sciences and society and tackle issues such as vocabulary. However, through listening to reproductive justice advocates in our research, I also learned there are issues which may be more difficult to address. Although the 2014 policy change has actively influenced the scientific studies being funded and run in the U.S., there are still questions and topics that receive insufficiently focus. For example, while sex and gender have their own respective definitions within different fields, is it possible to disentangle sex and gender in the laboratory as research variables? Further, how/when will science address heteronormative issues and include trans neuroscience research in scientific laboratories? Neuroethics as a discipline provides a platform for discourse of these questions. As a scientist myself, I know it is difficult to isolate and conduct rigorous research with these kinds of variables, yet we should begin to build conversations around these questions because this research is crucial to understanding human biology.

Still, recent (sex and gender) research has increased knowledge about the female brain and body, and our project questioned the potential outcomes of this expanding knowledge on society. Neuroethics defines value sets and examines how neuroscience research informs these values. Neuroethicists often explore topics by studying how a new technology or scientific finding is deviating from normal. However, when studying sex and gender, what is “normal” and who stated it was so? Will we learn more about the differences between sex and gender or males and females? What are the consequences of discovering that males and females may be more similar than previously thought or in fact, are much more different? Is our society ready to celebrate difference or would the emergence of difference provide an avenue for further division?

Image courtesy of Pixabay.

In a 2012 article, Dr. Roy discussed these types of questions and urges neuoethicists, feminists, and neuroscientists to reorient themselves when asking and reading answers to these questions of difference. She explains that when reading neuroscience findings, we should shift our perspective on the concept of difference. We should not only ask whether there is a difference between groups (in this case, when exploring the variable of sex), but whether there is “enough” difference between the groups. Unlike what a neuroscientist may instinctively assume, she is not referring to a statistically different p-value, but understanding a multiplicity of differences, rather than the traditional binary perspective. For example, there are many variables, some even on a spectrum, that may differ between individuals, and we should not limit science to only studying sex through one variable which separates individuals into two groups. Roy also invites us to re-consider which “differences” we choose to analyze. In so doing, she encourages neuroscience readers to search for “evidence that support[s] a more complex treatment of the relationship between structure and function” and question underlying assumptions that exist within the field as a way to tackle the implications of difference.

This is where I urge neuroethicists to step in. It is important to formally ask and answer these types of questions before negative stereotypes form based on overinterpretations of science. Neuroethics teaches us to identify such dogmas and unspoken assumptions, therefore providing an avenue for researchers to constantly question the dogmas that are taught and guide research.

This post is an attempt to summarize an in-depth look at the intersection of molecular biology and reproductive justice. To learn more about the project, please visit the project website.


Kristie is a PhD candidate in the Neuroscience graduate program at Emory University. Her research focuses on understanding how exogenously driving different brain rhythms can impact the brain’s immune environment. Kristie is also an editorial intern for The American Journal for Bioethics Neuroscience and a supporting editor of The Neuroethics Blog.

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Garza, K. (2019). Neuroethics Can Help Scientists Use Sex As A Biological Variable . The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from


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