Human beings can change their gender but not their sex, a leading fertility expert said last night, as he waded into the fierce debate around trans and women’s rights.
Professor Robert Winston, of Imperial College London, said a person cannot change sex, ‘because it is embedded in genes in every cell in the body’.
His comments come amid a row over the definition of a woman, which in recent months has become a major talking point in politics and sports – including whether trans women should be allowed to compete in female-only competitions.
Earlier this week the debate reached the top of the Church of England, after a bishop said there were now ‘complexities associated with gender identity’.
Last night Professor Winston, one of the world’s leading experts on fertility and a Labor peer in the House of Lords, gave his view on the debate, saying we, ‘cannot escape our genetics’.
He said: ‘There is no question that we can change our gender, we can do it by mutilating ourselves, we can do it by removing bits of our body and therefore change our shape and so on.
‘But you can’t change your sex, because that is embedded actually in those (a person’s) genes in every cell in the body, that’s the difference.
Professor Robert Winston (pictured), of Imperial College London, said a person cannot change sex, ‘because it is embedded in genes in every cell in the body’
‘That really becomes a problem because occasionally you end up with somebody that is born a male, but then wants to become a female, so you can have that mutilating operation for example.
‘But then the question is should they be allowed to compete in sport. That’s a major problem because of course they still have certain male characteristics which will likely give them an edge over other women.
What is the XY sex-determination system?
Developed in the early 1900’s the XY-sex-determination system is used to classify the sex of many mammals – including humans, as well as some insects, reptiles and plants.
It was developed after the discovery that females have two of the same kind of sex chromosome (XX), while males have two different kinds of sex chromosomes (XY), that determine the sex of an animal.
In humans, the presence of the Y chromosome is responsible for triggering male development; in the absence of the Y chromosome, the fetus will undergo female development.
However there are cases where someone is born with three sex chromosomes, such as in the case of Klinefelter syndrome (sometimes called XXY) where boys and men are born with an extra X chromosome.
Klinefelter syndrome does not usually cause any obvious symptoms early in childhood, and even the later symptoms may be difficult to spot.
However in adulthood it can lead to infertility and low sex drive.
The XY chromosomes were first discovered in beetles by the American scientist Nettie Stevens and, independently, the zoologist Edmund Beecher Wilson, in 1905.
In the early 1920s, American zoologist Theophilus Painter demonstrated that they also existed in humans and many other mammals.
There other main type of sex determination is the ZW sex-determination system, which is the system that determines the sex of the offspring of birds and crustaceans.
‘So that is where the problem really, I think, lies. And of course also the issue of just social behavior, in different situations.
‘Using toilets, using bathrooms, a whole range of issues like this, which understandably worry women.’
Professor Winston, who was speaking about sex and gender during a segment on Piers Morgan’s Uncensored, also described a woman as a ‘female’ which he said was defined by ‘the genes she has’.
He said: ‘A woman has two X chromosomes normally. It’s probably easier to define a male, a male has specific masculine genes, which make us different from women.
‘The female position is the default human position, that is to say that if there is no male genes there you are born as a women.
‘I am a clump of about 8billion cells at least, each of which has got my maleness in it.
‘I am defined genetically, every single cell has got those male genes, and that would apply to a woman that doesn’t have those genes.
‘That’s what makes the difference. And we cannot escape the fact that we are genetically determined in this way. ‘
It comes after the Church of England earlier this week admitted it does not have a definition of the word woman.
A bishop said that the meaning of the word used to be ‘self-evident’. But he added that there are now ‘complexities associated with gender identity’ which a church project about sexuality and relationships is exploring.
The admission, in an official report prepared for the gathering of its governing body this weekend, stirred criticism last night.
It comes despite Anglicanism continuing to oppose same-sex weddings – and only recently allowing women to be bishops.
Campaigner Maya Forstater said: ‘When the Government redefined women through the Gender Recognition Act, the Church of England could have stuck with its long-established understanding, which makes sense whether your starting point is biology or the Bible.
‘It is shocking that they so readily gave up the definition of man or woman for the state to amend, as if this fundamental truth did not matter.’
And Rev Angela Berners-Wilson, who in 1994 became the first woman ordained as an Anglican priest, told The Telegraph: ‘I’m not totally happy with it. I mean, I do think certain things like “men can’t have babies”, just to say the complete obvious thing. ‘
Campaigner Maya Forstater (pictured) said: ‘When the Government redefined women through the Gender Recognition Act, the Church of England could have stuck with its long-established understanding, which makes sense whether your starting point is biology or the Bible.’
Pictured: Canterbury Cathedral. A Church of England bishop said the church had no definition for a woman at a meeting of the General Synod last week
But she added: ‘But I think we need to be very sensitive and maybe we need to re-examine our boundaries.’
It comes after months in which the definition of the word woman has gripped politics.
Several Labor MPs refused to define it, while leader Sir Keir Starmer said it was wrong to claim that only women could have a cervix.
By contrast, Cabinet ministers have been clear that biology defines women and that anyone born male should not compete against women in sport.
The church was put on the spot in one of almost 200 questions submitted to its ‘parliament’, the General Synod, in York this weekend.
Adam Kendry, a lay member from the Armed Forces, asked simply: ‘What is the Church of England’s definition of a woman?’
Rt Rev Robert Innes, the Bishop in Europe, replied: ‘There is no official definition, which reflects the fact that until fairly recently definitions of this kind were thought to be self-evident, as reflected in the marriage liturgy.’
He added that the church ‘has begun to explore the complexities associated with gender identity’.
Jayne Ozanne, who sat on the Government’s LGBT + advisory panel, said Mr Kendry’s question was ‘passive aggressive … designed to upset the LGBT + community’.
It is not the first time the Church has come under fire for its stance on gender.
In 2019 thousands of clergy objected to guidance for a new type of baptism service to allow transgender Christians to celebrate their new identities.