The PC story of the week is a controversy surrounding a world-renowned surgeon who resigned a leadership position in the face of criticism over a one-liner he delivered concerning semen.
Until last week, Lazar Greenfield was the president-elect of the American College of Surgeons. He invented the Greenfield Filter, a device that has saved countless lives by preventing blood clots during surgery. He's a professor emeritus of surgery at the University of Michigan. He has written more than 360 scientific articles in peer-reviewed journals, 128 book chapters, and two textbooks. He has served on the editorial board of 15 scientific journals and was the lead editor of Surgery News, the trade publication in which his writing initiated "Semen-gate."
In the February issue, he penned some thoughts on Valentine's Day under the heading "Gut Feelings." He wrote about the gut feeling some get when they meet their significant other, and how that feeling "might have a physiological basis." Greenfield proceeded to discuss the mating habits of fruit flies and the rotifer, in each case referencing the scientific literature. Then he turned his attention to humans.
In noting the therapeutic effects of semen, Greenfield cited research from the Archives of Sexual Behavior, which found that female college students practicing unprotected sex were less likely to suffer from depression than those whose partners used condoms or those who remained abstinent.
His closing line caused the controversy:
"So there's a deeper bond between men and women than St. Valentine would have suspected, and now we know there's a better gift for that day than chocolates."
The attempt at Jackie Mason humor apparently didn't sit well in certain quarters. Greenfield resigned as editor of Surgery News and gave up his stewardship of ACS after learning that his article had spurred threats of protests from women's groups.
In an interview with the Detroit Free Press on Wednesday, Greenfield explained:
"The editorial was a review of what I thought was some fascinating new findings related to semen, and the way in which nature is trying to promote a stronger bond between men and women. It impressed me. It seemed as though it was a gift from nature. And so that was the reason for my lighthearted comments."
In all that has been printed about this controversy, one perspective is missing and noteworthy - that of the three psychologists who wrote the peer-reviewed article cited by Greenfield. So I tracked down Rebecca L. Burch, Gordon G. Gallup Jr., and Steven M. Platek. Speaking for the group, Platek, editor-in-chief of Frontiers in Evolutionary Neuroscience and a coeditor of Evolutionary Psychology, offered this response:
"Frankly, we think people are overreacting to the comments made by Dr. Lazar Greenfield. There is growing evidence that human semen has the potential to produce profound effects on women. We have replicated the effects showing female college students having sex without condoms are less depressed as measured by objective scores on the Beck Depression Inventory. We've also examined the data as a function of whether the students were using hormonal contraceptives, whether they were in committed relationships, and how long these relationships have lasted.
"The antidepressant properties of semen exposure do not vary as a function of any of these conditions. It is not a question of whether females are sexually active, since students having sex with condoms show the same level of depression as those who are not having sex at all. We have also received numerous semen testimonials from other women who attest to the antidepressant effects of semen exposure, and these accounts often include the use of control trials (i.e., comparisons generated by switching from condoms to unprotected sex, or vice versa).
"Only 5 percent of the ejaculate is sperm. What's left is seminal plasma, which is a rich concoction of chemicals, including many that have the potential to produce mood-altering effects derived from hormones, neurotransmitters, and endorphins. There are even female sex hormones in male semen. Within an hour or two after insemination, you can detect heightened levels of many of these seminal chemicals in a woman's bloodstream. . . .
"How can someone be asked to resign for citing a peer-reviewed paper? Dr. Greenfield was forced to resign based on politics, not evidence. His resignation is more a reflection of the feminist and antiscientific attitudes of some self-righteous and indignant members of the American College of Surgeons. Science is based on evidence, not politics. In science knowing is always preferable to not knowing."
Or as Greenfield told the Detroit Free Press, "My intention was to amuse rather than to offend."
Contact Michael Smerconish
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