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March 16, 2007

More on "treating" sexual orientation in utero

Julian Sanchez has an interesting response my earlier post on Southern Baptist pastor Albert Mohler's declaration parents should "treat" their fetuses for homosexuality if there were pre-natal tests for sexual orientation.

Julian agrees that the nature/nurture question is morally irrelevant when it comes to homosexuality. If we agree that sexual choice is a human right and that all sexual orientations are equally compatible with the Good Life, then it doesn't really matter how much of our sexual orientation is influenced by our genes. Sexual orientation might be a free choice that everyone has the right to make. Or it might be more more aspect of the healthy inborn variability that makes our species interesting. If you're someone who thinks that homosexuality is wrong or bad, the nature/nuture argument doesn't matter all that much either. All Christians believe that God has given us certain appetites that predispose us towards sin--like lust, greed, sloth, etc. Nobody supposes that God gave everyone the same vices in the same degrees. Some people are naturally hungrier or hornier or more wrathful than others. The bottom line, supposedly, is that we all have free will and are therefore responsible for not giving in to whatever animal urges we happened to inherit.

Getting back to Julian's post, he says he's not sure exactly how he feels about the ethics of pre-natal testing for sexual orientation:

Though on the question of taking measures in utero to determine the orientation of a child, I'm a bit fuzzier: Certainly, to the extent these are risky, it seems grotesque to chance leaving your child with some kind of serious physical defect just to ensure it comes out straight. But if it were safe? Certainly I'm out of sympathy with the sorts of motives we readily imagine as the source of such a choice—though it's also not hard to think of some less repugnant ones—but it's hard to argue it constitutes a wrong to the child, as such.

As I said in the comments at Julian's place, I think testing and in-utero "treatment" are interestingly different.

I don't think it's a wrong to the fetus, or the future person, to test for sexual orientation, per se. I'm even reluctantly prepared to accept parents' right to terminate pregnancies for reasons that I find frivolous or abhorrent. However, I'm vehemently opposed to the idea of "treating" homosexuality at any point in the life-cyle. Sexual orientations are not diseases, or disabilities.

For me, the bottom line is that fetuses aren't people, but pregnant women are. It's not wrong to the fetus to abort it, because it's not a person yet. Women don't have to justify their abortion decisions. It's enough that they don't want that fetus in their body.

Consider the ethics of sex-selection. I find it deeply creepy that couples abort daughters in order to bear more sons. I believe that this choice reveals deeply reprehensible motives, even though it is not in itself wrong. I also find it creepy that people spend a lot of money centrifuging their sperm in order to sex-select their children pre-conception. It's just disturbing and sad people care so much about gender. Still, I won't say it's wrong to try to influence the gender of your future children.*

Society must not force a woman to carry a child against her will in order to maintain desirable population parameters. A society with a full range sexual orientations is better than a world where heterosexual parents impose their preferences on the next generation. However, I'm not going to force anyone to be pregnant in the service of the social value of diversity.

If you don't like the fetus you got by luck, you can abort and start over. Likewise, you may ethically do things before conception to try to influence what kind of fetus you conceive. That said, the factors that influence such a decision might reflect very badly on your character. If you're aborting for height or body build or sexual orientation or gender, you're revealing yourself to be a horrifyingly shallow person, or worse.

On the other hand, I think it would be unequivocally wrong to continue with a pregnancy and start subjecting the fetus to so-called "medical treatments" in utero to change its sexual orientation. Heterosexuality is not a disease, and neither is homosexuality. Likewise, having a big nose isn't a disease, nor is a projected adult height of 5'2". There's evidence that your objective life prospects are better if you're better looking, but nobody thinks it's okay for parents to start doing plastic surgery in utero. It's frivolous for parents to start doing the equivalent of plastic surgery on their unborn children, with all the attendant moral and physical risks. The difference is that the fetus is eventually going to become a person who will have to live with the consequences of these interventions. All medical interventions have risks and it's not right to indulge your prejudices in the present when you know that the costs may eventually be visited upon an innocent person in the future.

*It might be irresponsible to sex-select your child in a society where sex selection is throwing off the gender balance of an entire generation, but that's a separate question. Likewise, it's probably somewhat socially irresponsible for doctors to provide tests that would enable couples to order up their future children a la carte. We've seen what humans do to the gene pools of purebred animals by aggressively selecting for superficially desirable characteristics. If there's a solution, it lies in education and more rational allocation of health care resources. A lot of women don't have any prenatal care at all in this country. The idea that gay testing should be embraced as part of medicine strikes me as obscene.


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I don't think the disease/not-disease distinction is that easy to maintain. If a test reveals that your kid will be deaf, but that there is a relatively low risk in utero procedure that will allow for the kid to be able to hear, would you say that the parents can't do it? Certainly it's true that people survive and even thrive while deaf, and that there is a set of deaf people (however small) who believe in the existence of something like "deaf culture."

At the end of the day, the reason we care about a disease is the collection of symptoms that are or lead to bad outcomes. That seems pretty similar to aesthetic worries, etc.

Deafness isn't one particular disease, but it's the lack of a very important functional capacity. Lots of different pathogens, congenital conditions, and environmental exposures can cause deafness. Medicine ought to treat deafness whenever it occurs, as long as the patient consents.

It's a complicated question whether deaf parents who don't want to treat their children should have the right to refuse medical treatment to ensure that their kids are deaf. However, we'd regard it as unconscionable if deaf parents (or anyone else) took steps to deafen a child who would naturally have been able to hear--even if they sincerely believed that their child would have a better life without hearing.

There's nothing abnormal or unhealthy about being gay (or straight). Parents shouldn't take medical risks with their child's developing brain in order to secure a relatively small and uncertain social advantage for the kid. It's frivolous and irresponsible at best, and at worst it's time-delayed gay bashing.

How could a so-called "right-to-life" advocate such as Mohler now take the position that some fetuses are *more equal than others.* His comments are more than absurd; they are downright dangerous. There are hints of eugenics, the province of arch-bigots and war criminals. Tonight, this story is getting prime-time coverage on CNN, and this makes me feel very queasy. A public airing lends legitimacy what is essentially a criminal idea. You gotta be kidding?

I find it interesting that you alluded to the gender imbalance as my mind went to certain provinces in China.
The question I have is, "What is the motivation for testing?"

If it is a knowledge issue, since it is a genetic test and it won't be years until they develop sexually, does it have to be an in-utero test? If the parents are going to love the child all the same, what does it matter if the test is done a week after the birth?

It seems that the only purpose would be to "cure" the condition.

The only reason for such a test to be performed in utero would be to either cure the child's homosexuality before they are born, or terminate the pregnancy if the parents decide they do not want a homosexual child. The rise of infanticide would be huge and both are morally and ethically wrong. Therefore, this test should never be developed and certainly not condoned by the medical community.

Also, what would happen to gay people who are already part of society? Would they start having to undergo tests to see if they are really gay? The heterosexist hierarchy this would perpetuate, and the subsequent witch hunt that would result would be detrimental to society not to mention, again, morally and ethically wrong.

Of course there is something abnormal about being gay. Gays are perhaps 4% of men. The norm is heterosexual. This is simple statistical fact.

I know, I know, you want to use "abnormal" to mean "wrong". Fine, we agree then.

And there's nothing unhealthy about being deaf.

So I think you're still left with a bit of a quandry. Homosexuality, if it is treatable in utero, is like deafness. Neither are wrong (nor right). I personally wouldn't want a deaf kid if I could prevent it, based on some rude prejudices I have that hearing is better than not-hearing.

But I can see how others might differ. Apparently it is already possible to select in-vitro fertilized eggs for dwarfism and deafness. Doing this is not in principle any different than selecting for (or against) homosexuality.

As for whether parents should select on any of these things, I say more power to them. If people want a straight kid, well, that's still better than wanting no kid at all.

I think one of the main drivers of anti-homosexual prejudice is the desire of many parents to have not just children, but grandchildren. I think this motive will die down now that fertility technologies allow everyone to have kids if they really want it. (I have a gay friend who just had a kid, as well as a single woman friend who is working on one alone.)

Just to throw a small monkey wrench into the works, there are sometimes good medical reasons to select for sex (e.g. in cases where there's a possibility of a sex-linked disorder such as Fragile X Syndrome). And I would think that a dwarf woman would have good medical reasons not to want to gestate a normal-size fetus.

I'm against "treating" homosexuality in non-consenting individuals. I'm not against pre-natal selection or selective abortion.

If people are such misogynists that they'd rather abort than have a daughter, I'd rather they aborted female fetuses than become the parents of girls. The same is true of homophobes who'd rather terminate a pregnancy and start from scratch than have a gay kid, and racists who are who only want fair-skinned blue-eyed progeny. Fetuses aren't people yet. People get to make choices about their own bodies--even if they're choosing based on warped values.

On the other hand, once you've committed to bringing a child into the world, you don't have unlimited license to remake that child according to your personal preferences. If you do, don't call it medical treatment when there's nothing wrong with the kid. Call it elective body modification/child abuse. It's not medicine.

Adults have the right to modify their bodies according to their whims, but parents don't have the right to impose those risks on their unconsenting children. The line between treatment and enhancement is sometimes blurry. But sexual orientations are squarely on the realm of normal human diversity.

If you're someone who thinks that homosexuality is wrong or bad, the nature/nuture argument doesn't matter all that much either. All Christians believe that God has given us certain appetites that predispose us towards sin--like lust, greed, sloth, etc. Nobody supposes that God gave everyone the same vices in the same degrees. Some people are naturally hungrier or hornier or more wrathful than others.

People who believe that homosexuality is immoral tend to believe that it is wrong because it is, in some vague sense, "unnatural." So homosexuality has to be non-inborn so that it can remain immoral.

This is more a line of emoting than a line or reasoning, but that's probably the important point to be grapsed. The number of people who think homosexuality is immoral for well-thought-out intellectual reasons is probably vanishingly small.

Lindsay, I can see your point that misogynists should probably not have a female child, nor should homophobes have a gay child. I would probably have to agree (for the child's sake of course). My worse fear is that a tilt towards legitimizing eugenics will be a step towards sanctioning bigotry. I don't want to go there. If people have an ethical/moral issue with abortion, then eugenics should not be offered as an option or escape hatch.

i think what we are seeing here is parallel & strategically planned hypocrisy on the part of BOTH the anti-gay & anti-abortion crowd. both of these groups are one and same, in my opinion. they both are dependent on god to complete their fallacy.

pro-life advocates have been working the margins of established freedoms & laws for most of the past 35 years. what i observe with this new medical 'approach' to 'healing' homosexuality is a page from the pro-life game-book.

if you notice, the anti-gay movement is now shifting towards a more medically based eugenics approach to get to their religious & societal goals. in the old days, they would just recite chapter & verse from the bible. >THIS RIVERFRONT TIMES ARTICLE (published Dec 2005 in Saint Louis) is about an organization that is using a disturbing 'jesus' rehabilitation & religious therapy approach to reprogramming & brainwashing people into believing their sexual orientation is wrong.

i would place a wager today, that the same groups involved with the exodus anti-gay/pro-jesus propaganda machine are also closely tied to the medical doctors being used to advance the faulty logic of their belief structure.

the larger issue of gay rights, in my opinion, needs to be addressed first. i believe this story, like a lot of religiously guided research being conducted, certainly has a politicized corporate odor wafting from it. personally, i find the whole idea of using medicine to change sexual orientation during pregnancy to be repulsive. i feel there is a more insidious underlying agenda to this research.

we have our work cut out for us. today's younger (under 30) generation seems very conservative & will fall right for these kinds of medical arguments.

i hope i can be lucky enough to be on the last ship out of this country when the fascists take over.

The more I think about this notion of testing and treating for gayness in utero, the more ridiculous it is. The idea is coming from a Southern Baptist pastor and it runs off the theological rails at the first curve.

The homosexuality is a biblical sin argument is based on the concept that being gay is a 'life style' choice... kinda like chosing boxers or briefs. But!!! if some people are simply born gay, then God made them that way and it would be a sin to alter them...

Oops... I dropped an o, that should have read: "kinda like choosing boxers or briefs"

swampcracker, when you say "eugenics," are you talking about eugenics as a social policy, or about individuals making decisions based on genetic testing? State-enforced eugenics (reproduction only for the "fit" etc.) seem to me to be very different from what is sometimes called "retail eugenics." When you say "legitimizing eugenics," just what do you mean -- a slppery slope from what Mohler is advocating to state-mandated controls on who may reproduce and what babies may be born? Or merely the open and widespread acceptance of the practice of deciding to abort fetuses based on prenatal testing -- which of course is already happening?


How far are you willing to go here? Are you just saying that there should be a legal right to abort a fetus because of its sex or sexual orientation, or are you saying it is morally indifferent to terminate a pregnancy for that kind of reason?

Also, in the hypothetical situation where some future "treatment" for same-sex orientation is safe and effective, would you have any basis to oppose it?

Leonardo, there's almost something touchingly communist about your desire to equate abnormality with wrongness. Except the creeping realization that people like you would ban music and dancing and string up geniuses for being witches. All deviations from the norm, no matter how much they could benefit society, are "wrong" and must be wiped out, huh? Mozart wouldn't have lasted a minute around you with his "abnormal" talent.

Hi Janet. Your phrase, "state-mandated controls," is what I had in mind. In some respects, this is already happening. Bean at has documented examples of pending legislation and/or prosecutorial abuses inspired no doubt the religious right wing:

The Virginia House is considering a number of bills that would restrict abortion rights or punish pregnant women by giving fetuses full constitutional rights from the moment of fertilization.

The Florida legislature is considering a bill that would require healthcare providers to report to the state whenever they know or suspect when a girl aged 15 or less is pregnant. The bill requires DNA testing and would criminalize teenagers engaging in consensual sex.

Various states prosecute pregnant women when they decide to carry a child to term despite having a substance abuse problem. Women have been jailed and forced to carry pregnancies to term under barbaric and inhumane conditions. According to Bean, these prosecutions “give personhood and full rights to the fetus while robbing the adult woman of her rights. In this equation, the woman becomes the incubator and her every need, desire, and vice is considered only through the lens of the fetus she carries.”

These examples of pending legislation and/or prosecutorial abuse would have been considered “unthinkable” not long ago. Today, these are commonplace. Can “stated-mandated controls” with respect to genetic screening and reproductive rights be far behind? Frankly, the extreme right-wing religious agenda scares me. I see it as a looming oppression.

Postscript: In my view, those who say homosexuality is immoral or abnormal are bigots. We cannot outlaw bigoted thoughts, but we do try to outlaw discrimination. I can well appreciate Lindsay's comment that misogynists should probably not have a female child, nor should homophobes have a gay child. Abortion-on demand is a realistic option, perhaps the only one. But when an openly anti-abortion, anti-gay advocate suggests a genetic-testing escape hatch as an alterntaive to abortion, the imbedded hypocracy is especially galling. I find it repugnant all counts.

In a hypothetical world where your could control the sex or sexual preference of your future offspring with prayer or willpower or some equally non-invasive intervention, I wouldn't fault people for doing so. After all wishing is free.

Imagine some hypothetical white power person who would only love white children. If that person won't have kids with a non-white person because they hate non-white people, that makes them reprehensible people, and probably not good prospects for parenthood because of their incredibly shallow and capricious limitations on love for their own children. (Cf. Strom Thurmond.)

On the other hand, just planning not to have kids with a non-white person isn't wrong. If you apply that logic when you're selecting a spouse, that just makes you a bigot. It doesn't mean that your courtship and marriage within your own narrow-minded preconceptions is in and of itself wrong. You've got the right to marry whoever you want whenever you want. You're not violating anyone's rights when you impose your bigoted norms on other consenting adults, like the people who are willing to associate with you. You're not wronging the mixed-race kids you would have been blessed with if you hadn't been a bigot, or the white kids you end up with because you let your prejudices shape your life.

Pre-natal dating and marriage "eugenics", post-conception IVF "screening," and selective abortion are all about morally equivalent. If you're willing to let bigoted values color these incredibly important decisions, that's evidence of your bad character, but it doesn't follow that these particular behaviors are wrong in and of themselves.

What's wrong with a White Power type who only dates other racist whites is that s/he's a racist, not that this racist lifestyle is calculated to produce white children. Even WP assholes have the right to control their own reproduction. It shouldn't come as any surprise that their warped values distort their whole lives. But it doesn't follow that everything a WP person is wrong in its own right. It's more that once you start down that path, there's really no end to the bitter fruit from that tree.

My position is that no woman should ever be expected to carry a fetus she doesn't want in her body. Being pregnant is like having sex. If you don't want it, nobody has the right to make you endure it. It's not the kind of decision you have to answer for.

"Call it elective body modification/child abuse. It's not medicine.

"Adults have the right to modify their bodies according to their whims, but parents don't have the right to impose those risks on their unconsenting children."

Taking your claim for granted that neither heterosexuality nor homosexuality is not an illness, defect, or any of the like, then it seems hard to see why a treatment to induce one of the sexualities in the fetus would be child abuse. If some harm is done by a successful treatment, then we could rule it immoral right off. If it is mere body modification, then it is not clear to me why the parents would be wrong to do it.

One reason you clearly point to is that risks are involved. It is unclear to me why this would tell us anything about when treatments are effective and, more interestingly, it seems that as long as the materialization of any of those risks happens before the fetus becomes a person the parents can abort having never wronged anyone.

Even the most risky procedures could be used, so long as there was an ability and willingness to abort should a problem begin. Even admitting that "People get to make choices about their own bodies," it is not clear to me why it would be wrong to change a pre-person in some way that does not make the circumstances of the future person any worse off.

It also seems that we allow parents to do a lot of minor body modification to their children if they want, so long as it doesn't knowingly worsen their future prospects. I suppose some do argue against circumcision, but taking you child to sunny areas so they will tan, or getting them braises for fairly unnecessary cases seems permissible.

I guess I'm abnormal, then... a "sinister" person (but we're long past the day when the nuns tried to get my mom to learn to write with the "proper hand"- at least around here). Is it "wrong"?.. or wrong-headed? Does it mean that, if I'm foolish enough to reach into the falafel pile with the "wrong" hand, I'll run the risk of losing it (& having to wipe & eat with the only one I have left)? Oh, it's pretty petty, sometimes, what old beliefs can do to relatively OK people.

Re: "Being pregnant is like having sex. If you don't want it, nobody has the right to make you endure it. It's not the kind of decision you have to answer for.."-
Well... OK- but you don't have sex continually for months & months (unless maybe you've been studying with Pepper Schwartz), so you don't really have the opportunity to draw out the drama and the social leverage possibilities like you do if you're pregnant. I can imagine this pregnant person who is kinda gettin' off on the "being pregnant" thing... and using it to see what kind of response is forthcoming from the 4 or 5 people with whom she's been intimate enough (that such a thing could be the product of their union) when she tells each of them that it's Theirs, too. Maybe she gets WIC coupons and whatever prenatal bennies may be out there for her, while she's digging this experience. Maybe there's a casting call for a "pregnant porn" shoot... Maybe she's getting to like the deference while shopping, of wielding a mysterious bulge, of... whatever. But, along about the time that it sinks in that she no more wants to be a MOTHER than she wants to join the Marines, she decides that it's time for a new game plan- and she moves her thingie on out and flies to Mexico to recoup her physical & emotional well-being. I guess I agree with Lindsay- that there's nothing inherently Wrong with this kind of behavior- it's her body, & choice. Finding out about the limits of our marvelous condition as a gregarious life-form is what living is all about. (Of course, to make it easier on her transition back to the warm, forgiving embrace of her upper-crust Southern Baptist family, she Could say that testing had indicated that the baby was gay... and black...) ^..^

Greg Egan wrote a great story about this subject, a science-fiction detective story called "Cocoon" (unrelated to the movie by that name). Spoilers ahead:

In the near future, it is discovered that sexual orientation is determined by some feature of the fetal environment. A pharmaceutical company is developing a product, an artificial in-utero cocoon, which will protect a developing fetus from a variety of infectious diseases--and, as an incidental side effect, also guarantees that the child will be straight. A research facility run by this company gets bombed, apparently by some sort of all-lesbian terrorist group.

The protagonist is a detective investigating the case who is gay and much less political about it than his partner. He doesn't regard the prospective prevention of homosexuality as any great tragedy; he thinks of his homosexuality as akin to left-handedness, something that it's silly to get morally exercised about, and if there were no gay people in the next generation it would all be the same to him.

What he eventually discovers is that the whole case is a set-up; the pharma company bombed its own facility, apparently to start a wave of anti-gay resentment as a means of drumming up demand for the product. And he comes to the realization that even if the abolition of homosexuality would be no big thing, the desire to market a means for abolishing homosexuality could be a big thing indeed.

I agree with Matt, a desire to market these tests is very troubling.

I should check that Egan story out, it sounds really interesting.

”I don't think it's a wrong to the fetus, or the future person, to test for sexual orientation, per se. I'm even reluctantly prepared to accept parents' right to terminate pregnancies for reasons that I find frivolous or abhorrent. However, I'm vehemently opposed to the idea of "treating" homosexuality at any point in the life-cycle. Sexual orientations are not diseases, or disabilities”

The mental acrobatics it takes to arrive at this conclusion must be remarkable. One can end up terminating a gay child, yet remain opposed to a (imaginary) “cure” that at least allow him to live.

The “right to do what you want with your own body” has been extended to another body (that of the child in-uterus). This right extends, not in the hypothetical…but in the actual routine aborting of children with Down syndrome, Cerebral Palsy -, and a host of other detectable birth defects. This is not “hinting” at eugenics, nor is it a slippery slope to eugenics, it is eugenics. And it is occurring regularly as we speak.
Yet this pure hypothetical inveighs moral disapproval simply because it threatens a celebrated group. The moral wrong of abortion and eugenics are indistinguishable. Abortion is eugenics; it is the extermination of undesirable humans for the benefit of others. What criteria one chooses to use in this selection process pales in comparison to the deed itself.

The logic of Roe and “reproductive rights” can easily be applied to everything from sex selection (not illegal in this country, but many others) to this “gay” hypothetical. It can easily encompass I.Q. enhancement, athletic ability, or what not.
The principle that would secure the continuation of homosexuality (If this hypothetical was accurate- I don’t believe it is) as an “inborn” yet untreatable, trait – is the same principle of equal human dignity that has been abandoned.

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