May 06, 2025

DOCTOR KALEB JERGINS LOOKED at the screen before him, and smiled. "There it is, Mrs. Peterson," he sighed.

His patient, Destiny Peterson sighed. Although Doctor Jergins had been a gynecologist for twenty years, he'd never become accustomed to the way an expectant mother could look so pleased, content, and utterly comfortable when the first pictures of her baby were being taken.

"I don't want to know whether it's a boy or a girl," Destiny declared. "Just tell me, is it healthy?"

"It looks quite healthy, for the most part," Doctor Jergins declared. "It's got a strong heart beat, all of its limbs are there, and the placenta seems to be forming well."

Destiny's husband, A.J., proudly declared, "Well, it figures. He's a Peterson, and Peterson boys and girls are always strong and healthy. He'll be a football player, just wait and see."

"Or, a dancer, if it's a girl," Destiny interceded. "We've already picked out names, Doctor. They're Coledon if it's a boy, and Avery if it's a girl. Aren't those just the most beautiful names you've ever heard?"

"Beautiful," Doctor Jergins replied, although he really wasn't thinking about what he was saying. He was distracted by an abnormality that had shown up on the screen. He angled his body slightly so that the parents wouldn't see the worried look on his face.

"I'm sure you tell that to every parent, anyway," Destiny mused, unaware of the shift in mood. "I could probably tell you the ugliest names in the world, and you'd tell me they were beautiful. And there's a lot of ugly names out there, too. My mom wanted me to name her Allie if she was a girl- as if there aren't' already a million Allie's in the world!"

A.J. had caught Doctor Jergins's worried expression, and asked, "Doctor, is everything all right? You don't look well."

"Is there something wrong with my baby?" Destiny wailed. Her dirty blonde hair was splayed on the chair, forming a sort of halo around her face, and sweat colored her brow, but her proud glow had departed, leaving her looking lifeless and dull. The transformation from the goddess she'd been moments ago was marked, to say the least.

"Oh, it's still healthy," Doctor Jergins assured her. "No need to worry about a miscarriage or still-birth, or at least, at this point. The problem is a very minor one, and is easily fixed with a bit of genetic manipulation."

Destiny bit her lip as tears welled up in her eyes. Doctor Jergins fought the urge to feel annoyed at the unwarranted burst of emotion; he'd just told her the problem was easily fixable. No matter how long he worked with emotional pregnant women, he still found it difficult to adjust to the mood swings.

"What's wrong with him?" A.J. asked.

"It's more of a question of what's wrong with it," Doctor Jergins corrected him.

"Forget the pronouns!" A.J. roared. "I don't care whether we call it he, she, or it! I just want to know if it's going to be OK!"

Mentally, Doctor Jergins kicked himself for going for the dramatic punch rather than simply relaying the facts to the worried parents. "It's the gender that's the problem, Mr. Peterson," he answered. "I know you don't really want to know, but your baby is a hermaphrodite."

"You mean, like, half-male half-female?" A.J. asked.

"It's hardly as macabre as that sounds," Doctor Jergins assured him. "Yes, your child is developing sexual organs characteristic to both males and females. In essence, your baby doesn't have a specific gender because it belongs to both genders. Gender construction and re-assignment surgery has been around for years, though, and if you just pick out a gender, we can see to it that your baby lives a healthy, normal life."

Destiny and A.J. still seemed somewhat shaken about the doctor's sudden pronouncement. The mother asked, "How can you tell this early?"

Doctor Jergins turned his screen so that it faced the parents, and explained, "visually, you can't tell that it is a hermaphrodite. If you look at these tic marks at the bottom of the screen, however, you can see that there are abnormalities, or at least you can if you're trained to know what to look for."

"What do they represent?" A.J. asked, clearly trying to put on a brave front.

"These represent a map of your baby's DNA," the doctor replied. "We can make our best guess about his genetic make-up based on scans the camera is making of the amniotic fluid. The computer then scans the DNA for common defects that can arise in birth, and if any of these marks turns red, it means there is something unusual. Then, I can go in and look at the individual segments of the DNA that pertain to each tic mark."

Somewhat forgetting himself and the situation, Doctor Jergins indicated one of the tic marks and observed, "If this one is red, it means the baby is probably at a risk for Downs syndrome. This one indicates gender or abnormalities in gender development, and this one turns red if the baby's genetic make-up doesn't match that of his or her supposed parents."

"How could that be any of your business?" A.J. demanded.

"Personally, I don't think it is my business," Doctor Jergins replied. "However, as a doctor, I can determine a great deal about inherited health traits by knowing who the child's parents are. There is no need to worry, however, results that suggest a baby's father isn't the mother's husband or boyfriend are entirely confidential. These tests have only been legal a few years, and we are very careful to protect our patiences' privacy."

Destiny and A.J. looked to one another, seeming troubled. When Destiny returned her attention to Doctor Jergins, she asked, "What do you think we should do, doctor?"

"Do?" Doctor Jergins repeated, taking a moment to remember what he and the others had been discussing before. "Oh, the process is very simple. You simply pick a gender for your baby, and come to a few extra appointments for genetic manipulation. Your baby will still need a few surgeries after it is born to completely assign it's gender, but by the time it's two or three, you won't be able to tell it from natural boys and girls."

The couple exchanged glances again, and Doctor Jergins added, "There's no need to make a decision about gender now, of course. You can have up to a month to think about it, but that's the latest we can begin the genetic counseling."

"Could we have a few minutes to talk about this?" A.J. asked.

"Oh, of course," Doctor Jergins assured them. He turned his screen away again, then said, "I'll be in the next room as soon as you're ready to tell me your decision." He departed, secretly grateful for the chance for a bathroom break.

Once the doctor was gone, A.J. sank to a stool, feeling as though all the breath had been knocked out of him. Destiny turned her head toward him, but couldn't move any more because all of the doctor's machinery was still attached to her in various places.

"I don't like this idea of picking a gender," Destiny mused. "I've heard of people who are assigned a gender, but look and talk like people from the other. What if we make it a boy when it should really be a girl, or vice versa?"

"I don't know," A.J. said, running nervous fingers through his hair. "Maybe it'll have to do some sort of hormone therapy when it hits puberty. How can we do that to our child?"

"Doctor Jergins didn't say anything about hormone therapy," Destiny observed.

"Well, maybe we won't need to, then," A.J. conceded. "Even so, I don't like this decision. It feels too much like we're playing God. It seems like there's so much room for us to go wrong in this decision. How do we know if what we're doing is right?"

"I kind of hoped it would be a girl," Destiny confessed.

"But we can't assign our baby a gender just because we want it that way," A.J. cried. "It's unnatural. Why are you crying?"

"I agree with you!" Destiny wailed. "Ignore the tears, I'm just hormonal right now, is all."

A.J. strode across the room and pulled several tissues out of a box. Handing them to his wife, he assured her, "Everything will be all right, OK? This is just a little set back, but our baby is totally healthy. Didn't you hear the doctor talking about it? This whole gender thing is upsetting, I know, but it won't hurt him at all. He'll be fine."

"I don't want to make it a boy," Destiny sobbed. "I don't want to make it a girl, either. I want it to be normal."

A.J. bit his lip, uncertain of how best to comfort his wife. He knew no more about the situation than she, and could offer her assurances no more than he could convince her of comforting lies. They couldn't have what they wanted, but he wouldn't tell Destiny. She already knew, and didn't need to hear it.

"We need to give it a natural birth," Destiny decreed. "I don't want to give it surgery or therapy or anything. When it's old enough to determine its own gender, it can decide it for itself."

A.J. nodded. Secretly, he'd been hoping he and his wife could do just that, but hadn't voiced his thoughts for fear that he would sound callous. "How will we do that?" he asked. "Will we dress it as a boy or a girl? And what sorts of toys will we buy for it?"

"It can wear and play with what it wants," Destiny replied. She patted her stomach, and said, "Just as it could have if it had been a boy or girl."

"What about when it goes to school?" A.J. asked. "Think of how the other children will make fun of it."

A worried expression crossed Destiny's face, but she said, "We'll cross that bridge when we reach it. In the meanwhile, we'll treat it with all the love and attention any baby deserves. We can give it a name that fits either gender, like Morgan or Jace."

"Are you sure about this?" A.J. asked.

Destiny nodded, then asked, "Are you?"

"I've never been more certain about much of anything," A.J. replied. He choked for a moment, blinked at the tears that formed in his eyes, then said, "I'll go get the doctor."

Doctor Jergins had just finished washing his hands and was closing the bathroom door behind him when A.J. pushed open the door that joined the restroom to the examination room. "We've made our decision," A.J. declared.

Doctor Jergins nodded, and followed the expectant father into the examination room. Once there, he slipped his latex gloves on and asked, "Have you decided on a gender?"

"Nope," A.J. said a little too knowingly.

"Well, that's all right," Doctor Jergins replied. "Like I said before, you'll have about a month to think about it."

"We don't need a month to think," A.J. declared even as the doctor began to remove his equipment from Destiny. "We've already made our decision."

"I thought you said you didn't know what gender you wanted to assign for your baby," Doctor Jergins said as he finished the last of his work. "You can sit up now," he told Destiny. She did as she was told, looking far more tired than she had any right to be.

"We're not going to assign it with any gender," A.J. announced. "We want it to be born naturally, so we're going to keep it as it is and let it chose it's own gender once it's older."

The pronouncement came as a shock to Doctor Jergins, who looked from A.J. to Destiny. "Are you sure about this?" he asked the mother.

Destiny nodded, even as she bit back a few whimpers. Her moods had to be even more mercurial than he'd originally thought, unless she'd been this chronically sad before the pregnancy.

Doctor Jergins sighed as he tried to think of the best way to explain some of the harder truths of the world to the parents. Sitting on his stool, the doctor said, "Take a seat, Mr. Peterson. There is a great deal about your decision that we're going to need to discuss."

Mr. Peterson sat down and took his wife's hand. Destiny remained on the examining table, but seemed far more comfortable once she was able to sit naturally. While they held hands, Doctor Jergins asked, "Do you remember a very prominent court case that was settled seven years ago? It involved a woman named Mackenzie Lundquist, and her baby Landon Lundquist."

"It sounds vaguely familiar," A.J. mused.

"Was that the one where she sued her doctor because her son was stillborn and she couldn't have any more?" Destiny asked.

"Something along those lines," Doctor Jergins replied. "The doctor could tell that the baby was experiencing a health risk when it was in the womb, and they suggested that she undergo genetic treatments. After all their efforts, the baby still died while the mother was in labor, and the shock to her system was so strong that she could never get pregnant again." He hoped the simplistic explanation would satisfy his patients, for he didn't know how else to explain the case without lapsing into medical terminology.

"Oh, I remember now!" A.J. cried. "Didn't she win a few million dollars in that case?"

"Yes," Doctor Jergins responded. "Of course, at that time genetic therapy wasn't as advanced as it is now, but the case inspired several hospitals to make new policies relating to genetic manipulation. It is because of Mackenzie Lundquist's case that we now require all pregnant patients to sign waivers before undergoing genetic therapy.

"Another policy that is very common throughout the US and that is a law for all hospitals in this state is one that states that if any unborn baby shows evidence that it is not responding to genetic manipulation, or if the parents refuse to undergo such treatments, no doctor can treat it or the mother further except to perform an abortion."

Destiny's hands immediately clasped her belly. "No!" she hissed.

"Are you trying to tell us we have to kill our baby?" A.J. demanded.

Doctor Jergins raised his hands in a defensive gesture, and assured them, "No, no. There is no way I could force you to have an abortion. However, if you won't submit to genetic therapy for your child, I can't treat it, nor can anyone in the state."

"So, just because you recommend genetic therapy to a couple and they decide not to undergo it, no other doctor in the state can treat them?" Destiny demanded.

"It's not as arbitrary as that," Doctor Jergins assured her, trying to remind himself not to get angry. The couple hadn't had recent legal decisions beat into their heads the way he and other medical students and doctors had over the last few years. "Most policies specify which malformations they specifically pertain to. Retardation, risk of disability or death, and gender irregularities such as those that affect your baby are all specifically mentioned in Illinois law."

"It doesn't make sense," Destiny complained. "It's not in any danger because of all this, nor is anybody else. It's not like we can't give it a gender after it's born, either."

"But it's so much easier this way," Doctor Jergins assured them. "I'm sure that post-natal surgery and hormone therapy would be very effective, but if you act while your child is still gestating, it will never have to live as a freak."

"Oh, so now my child is a freak?" A.J. demanded.

"Please, Sir, I was speaking ironically," Doctor Jergins retorted. "My point is that although the fact that hermaphrodites are born somewhat regularly, the world will look upon it as an unknown. People will make assumptions about you and your child based on its gender, or rather, lack of it. You have to consider quality of life when you make these sorts of decisions!"

"Quality of life," A.J. snorted, clearly not buying the doctor's explanations. "So it'll get teased a bit. All kids get teased, it's a fact of life. The fact that we don't conform to your, or the state's, opinion of what is normal and acceptable doesn't mean that our baby won't have a perfectly happy, quality-filled life."

"I don't doubt that," Doctor Jergins said. "However, you can hardly be prepared to handle the trials of raising such an unusual child. No parents really can be. Nature knows it, the hospital knows it, and the state knows it, which is why I legally can't treat your child if you chose to leave it as it is right now."

Destiny began to cry again, and A.J. cried, "Well, then, we'll go to another state!"

"Really?" Doctor Jergins asked, trying to hide his incredulity. "When she goes into labor, are you going to drive three hours to get to our nearest border with Iowa, then however many more to get to a hospital?"

"We'll worry about that when the time comes," A.J. declared, slipping an arm around Destiny and steering her toward the door. "I hardly think it's your business anymore, anyway. You're no longer our doctor."

Doctor Jergins shrugged, unconcerned. The couple underestimated the prevalence of the policies and laws he'd described. Mentally, he gave Destiny and A.J. two or three weeks, tops. Once they realized that they couldn't find a legal doctor willing to deliver their baby, they'd be back.

8 months later

DESTINY GASPED WHILEA.J. held her hand and coached her through the worst labor pains. Destiny's sister, a medical student named Haley Engquist knelt before her. A.J.'s parents stood by with towels, a hot-water pad, and a cup of ice water with a straw.

For months, Destiny and A.J. had searched for a doctor that would treat their unborn baby. They'd been all through Iowa, Wisconsin, and Ohio before they'd given up. If state law didn't prevent a doctor from treating them, a hospital's policy or personal unwillingness to defy provincial wisdom about proper parenting prevented qualified doctors from helping the desperate couple.

In the end, Destiny had been forced to call her sister, who hadn't yet finished her bachelor's degree. The expectant mother had been uncertain about her sister's lack of training and wisdom, but as time had worn on, her choices and dissipated until Haley was all that remained.

For the last four hours, however, Destiny hadn't been thinking about her sister's inexperience, or her inability to find a doctor, or any of the semantics of her unusual birth. All she'd been able to think about was the pain of each contraction. Exhausted from her efforts, Destiny continued to pant and groan while A.J. chanted encouragements.

"I. . . I can't do this!" Destiny gasped. "I need pain killers! Haley! Give me something!"

"I can't, Des," Haley answered. "I just don't have access to that sort of stuff here."

A.J.'s parents huddled together and watched while Destiny suffered on her bed. They'd put down a few towels and the hallway rug on top of the blankets so that A.J.'s grandmother's quilt wouldn't be ruined, but their efforts seemed to be in vain. The sweaty, suffering mother arched her back as a particularly painful contraction hit her, and A.J. called, "You're all right, honey. You're doing great, just keep it up."

"You're fully dilated. . . I think," Haley declared from the foot of the bed. "Just do what comes naturally, all right. If you feel any sort of desire to push, then push."

"She can't do this," A.J. proclaimed, for several seconds looking even more frantic than Destiny. "You don't know enough about all this, and we're not in a hospital. Everything's going to go wrong."

"No, everything is going to be all right," Haley responded through gritted teeth. "How do you think people had babies back in the days before pain killers and hospitals? Congratulations, Destiny. You said you wanted a natural birth, but you never imagined it would be this natural, did you?"

Destiny only responded by groaning. A.J. gritted his teeth as she painfully squeezed several of his fingers. Although he wouldn't voice his concerns aloud with his wife so obviously troubled, he was worried about the labor. Haley's words were true, but she hadn't mentioned the fact that still-births were common in the days before pain killers and hospitals. He feared for his baby's health, and for his wife's.

"I was born in my Mom's bedroom," A.J.'s mother announced, but the reminiscence was stayed when her husband put a calming hand on her shoulder.

"Now is the time!" Haley announced. "Push, Destiny, push! Push!" A.J. took up the chant, and his parents did a moment later. Soon, the whole room was shouting the same chorus. "Push! Push! Push!"

All too quickly and after far too much time, Destiny sighed, and relaxed and Haley reached for the tiny squirming baby. The red goo of the placenta washed over the hallway rug, and the only thing that kept A.J.'s mother from cringing at the mess as the sight of the new, squirming baby in Haley's arms.

Haley beamed at the tiny baby, even as it began to squall in her arms. "Congratulations, Destiny," she breathed. "It's a. . . a healthy baby." In all the excitement of the birth, Haley had almost completely forgotten the cause of Destiny's and A.J.'s lack of health care. She'd wanted to tell Destiny the child's gender, and had only just remembered why she couldn't.

"Honey, why are you crying?" A.J. asked as he pushed strands of sweaty hair out of his wife's face. "Hear that? It's healthy, and it's alive. You did it sweetheart."

A.J.'s mother pushed toward Haley, calling, "Oh, let me see my little grandchild. Let me hold it."

Haley delicately laid the infant in the older woman's waiting arms. Although A.J.'s mother was an experienced mother, she was momentarily overcome at the site of the tiny, still crying baby that squirmed in her arms. "What are you going to name it?" the woman asked.

"Robin," A.J. answered as his mother returned the newborn to its mother.

Destiny cradled the baby in her arms, and rocked it. That didn't stop it from continuing to scream, but Destiny smiled so warmly, it might as well have been sleeping. "Oh, Robin," she sighed. "You're going to be someone special, I just know it."

Haley beamed, gladded by the birth she'd witnessed and slightly awed to know that she, a mere student, had delivered a baby by herself. Remembering some of her preliminary medical studies, she gasped and said, "Oh, you're going to want to take it to a doctor in another week to make sure it's gaining plenty of weight."

Destiny's smile faded, but only slightly. "Can't you do it, Haley?" she asked.

Haley bit her lip, and said, "I could drive up here again if you want, but are you sure you won't want a real doctor with an M.D. to look after Robin now that it's born? After all, from what I understand of the law, the doctors and hospitals can treat it now that it's legally a baby and alive."

Destiny snorted. "After the way that Doctor Jergins treated us? Forget it. A medical student with morals is always better than that creep."

"Honey, are you sure?" A.J. asked with a shocked voice. "We haven't even talked about this."

"What is there to talk about?" Destiny demanded. "I won't let that man have anything to do with my baby. End of story."

A.J. seemed to relax as he let go of the issue. "All right, sweetheart," he sighed. "When will be a good time for you, Haley?"

"We can work that out later," the medical student replied. "For right now, Mommy needs her rest, and some alone time with the baby. Let's go." She ushered A.J.'s parents out of the room.