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Should We Be Allowed to Choose the Sexual Orientation of Our Children?

• October 17, 2013 • 8:00 AM

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Imagine a prenatal test that, like the one for trisomy 21 (Down’s syndrome), could show a predisposition to gayness.

In a New York magazine piece, “The Science of Gaydar,” writer David France looks at the growing scientific evidence for innate differences between gay and straight people. France ends by gazing toward the future, and asks the question, “What if prenatal tests were able to show a predisposition to gayness?” Well, France reports, “[Northwestern University psychological professor] Michael Bailey, for one, isn’t troubled by the moral implications any more than he would oppose fetal screens for potential birth defects, though he quickly adds his personal belief that homosexuality is ‘a good’ on par with heterosexuality.”

Bailey espouses a definite Seinfeldian “not that there’s anything wrong with that” attitude toward homosexuality. In a paper he published on the subject with lawyer Aaron Greenberg in 2001, he wrote: “Because homosexuality causes no direct harm to others (other than those who take offense at it on irrational and/or inhumane grounds) and because homosexual behavior is crucial to the ability of homosexual people to enjoy their lives (as heterosexual behavior is to heterosexuals), homosexuality should not be morally condemned or proscribed.” But, Greenberg and Bailey say, it’s wrong to tell parents they can’t select for (or against) a heterosexual or homosexual predisposition in their children.

Greenberg and Bailey take a libertarian view of the matter—they believe the right of parents to make these kinds of decisions is paramount, “even assuming, as we do, that homosexuality is entirely acceptable morally.” Their point is that, “allowing parents, by means morally unproblematic in themselves, to select for heterosexuality would be morally acceptable” because “allowing parents to select their children’s sexual orientation would further parents’ freedom to raise the sort of children they wish to raise and because selection for heterosexuality may benefit parents and children and is unlikely to cause significant harm.”

It ought to be the case that defending the rights of parents to use this technology doesn’t ultimately undermine queer rights, but it seems hard to believe that in practice it won’t lead to support of the idea that one ought to try not to have a gay child.

Greenberg and Bailey’s paper is quite interesting—interesting enough that, when my class of smart, thoughtful, and generally progressive Medical Humanities and Bioethics masters students discussed it with the authors earlier this year, many of the students who began in agreement with the paper ended up disagreeing with it, and vice versa. I admit I wavered, but I didn’t ultimately flip; I started with, and still have, several problems with the paper.

The first is, I suppose, a general problem I have with libertarianism: It’s selfish. And I don’t like selfish philosophies. (I guess I’m selfish that way.) Greenberg and Bailey seem to assume that the larger social effects of individual decisions like the ones they are supporting are not really a pertinent moral issue, because we should just take care of our own individual needs, the neighbors be damned. What happens to gay strangers once we offer “selection” against more people like them is not the issue when I’m deciding whether to professionally justify or even personally use this theoretic technology—unless that happens to be what I feel like troubling myself about. Greenberg and Bailey just don’t spend much energy worrying actively (in their paper or in follow-up discussions) about what effect defending the right to use this technology could have on queer people and their rights.

Now, to be fair, they may not worry about that in part because they just disagree with me that they are effectively undermining queer people and their rights by arguing that this technology would be morally acceptable. In an email to a sex research discussion group, Bailey argued against me: “I think it is possible both to support the message that homosexual people are as good as heterosexual people and to support parents’ freedom to disagree with that message and to act on their disagreement.” But I think he’s naïve here.

Sure, it ought to be the case that defending the rights of parents to use this technology doesn’t ultimately undermine queer rights, but it seems hard to believe that in practice it won’t lead to support of the idea that one ought to try not to have a gay child—just as in practice the prenatal test for trisomy 21 (Down’s syndrome) has led to a general attitude (at least among the vast majority of my very “progressive” childbearing acquaintances) that one ought to try not to have a child with trisomy 21. I have a friend whose young son has trisomy 21. This friend was out and about with her son one day when another woman looked at her and her son and—recognizing that the son has Down’s syndrome—scolded my friend with the question, “Didn’t you get the test?!” I can fully imagine a scenario where, 30 years from now, a woman tells a friend her son has come out as gay, only to have the friend respond, “Didn’t you get the test?!” Could we really imagine that offering such a test would have no negative impact on how an already-homophobic culture views people who are gay (and their parents, for that matter)? In that sense, can we really imagine that supporting parents’ right to choose against homosexuality supports the message that gay people are as good as straight people?

Had Greenberg and Bailey bothered to look at the substantial literature on prenatal testing and disability rights, I think they might have been less sanguine in their assumptions about the social meaning of prenatal testing for conditions that typically become identities. They might have understood something more about the social model of disability, and how being gay could easily be construed as a disability—except, as it turns out, one that has already been explicitly excluded by the Americans With Disability Act.

Now, I should note that, because they maintain a “not that there’s anything wrong with that” stance—and, knowing them, I really do believe they are both fully comfortable with and supportive of queer people—Greenberg and Bailey argue that it would also be fine for would-be parents to use such technologies to choose predisposition for homosexuality over predisposition for heterosexuality. And, indeed, I can imagine some parents making that choice—gay parents and even some straight people like myself. (I’d be happy to have more gay people in the world, because I think it would further advance gay rights, and I’ve always thought I’d make a much better mother-in-law to a gay man than the alternatives.) But let’s get real: Most of the choices made in such circumstances would likely be against homosexuality, just as most choices about congenital deafness and trisomy 21 and achondroplasia turn out to be against, not for. You can argue that homosexuality is different than these conditions because it doesn’t “harm” the child, but many people have the same sorts of non-evidence-based fears about the “harm” a child will face from being gay as they have about the “harm” that will come to a child from being deaf or having trisomy 21 or achondroplasia (more ways in which homosexuality starts to look like disability). Moreover, can you really, in this culture, treat homosexuality as a preventable genetic condition and not expect people to see it as … a preventable genetic condition?

Thus, while I think Greenberg and Bailey are right in generally defending would-be parents’ rights to choose reproductive technologies, I also can’t help but suspect that their vigorous defense of this option at some level feels like (apparently unwittingly) enabling homophobic bigotry. Certainly I defend Greenberg and Bailey’s right to say what they want, and to think what they want, but I think it is tough for them to claim they’re not potentially contributing to an undermining of queer rights.

In France’s article, Bailey is quoted as saying, “There’s no reason to ban, or become hysterical about, selecting for heterosexuality. … That’s precisely what parenting is about: shaping the children to have traits the parents value.” I find I side with Simon LeVay, a gay sex researcher who has, like Bailey, long been studying the biological origins of sexual orientation, and who shared his views with me in an email: “I agree with Mike that we shouldn’t ban it. Because that would be allowing governments to make decisions about our reproductive choices, which isn’t a good idea…. But I reserve the right to become hysterical about it.”


This post originally appeared on the author’s personal site on June 20, 2007. It is republished here with permission.

Alice Dreger
Alice Dreger is a professor of clinical medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine. She has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post.

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