Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Homosexuality Part III: Pink Sperm and Designer Babies

Final Part of a three part series. Part I and Part II can be read here and here

To what extent does our biological understanding of sexual orientiation now inform our ability to critically assess the issue of gay sperm donation What about the wider issues of queer rights, or whether or not parents could or should choose the sexuality of their children?

From the outset we need to dispel this fallacy inherent in the queer rights movement that the ‘natural’ status of homosexuality, or for that matter transsexuality which I do not deal with here, somehow lends weight to quest for legal and civil rights for queer people. This is inconsistent for three reasons. (1) as we’ve seen, no behaviour is truly ‘natural’ in the deterministic sense of the word; (2) asserting that homosexuality is innate sets up the possibility of falsification, which isn’t helpful for the queer rights movement; and most importantly (3) legal and civil rights are not granted or based on the basis of being natural or unnatural. Our basis for rights in a secular democracy is that of the right of the individual to live his or life has he or she pleases. Religious freedom is not granted on the basis of religion being natural, but rather on the basis that a person has the right to express faith without interference or discrimination. The same argument must apply to sexual orientation, rather than some half baked idea about ‘natural rights’, for our system of rights to be consistent. Sure, use the arguments about the biological basis of homosexuality to broaden the public’s understanding of the issue, but keep it away from the rights argument; it has no justifiable basis there.

News that gay men can be sperm donors must be welcome to couples requiring assisted reproductive technology. However, evidence is accumulating that sexual orientation is the result of gene-environment interaction; sexual orientation has a heritable component.

Thus, using sperm from gay donors may have the potential of passing the gay gene(s) to the next generation. Patients requiring such service should be informed of such potential.

--Assoc. Prof. Frank Sin, The Press, 13 March 2006.

We can conclude that the Associate Professor Sin’s argument that the sperm of gay donors may somehow result in gay children is, to put it bluntly, crap. Of course, such a mechanism may be technically possible, but there is no reason to assume it is probable or even likely, since thousands of studies have failed to show a paternally based inheritance pattern of sexual orientation.

Given this lack of direct inheritance via sperm, we must question what the purpose or utility is of requiring disclosure of homosexuality on the behalf of sperm donors. If there is no evidence to support that homosexual men produce homosexual children, such a disclosure would be logically unnecessary.

Our knowledge of homosexuality’s biological underpinnings is ridiculously limited, to extent that our ability to predict when it will occur in individuals is close enough to zero to be discarded. The probabilities that we have are either relative to base population rates, (and therefore have no real predictive power), or based on correlations for which we have no real causal mechanisms. As a result, actions taken by parents to avoid conceiving or raising homosexual children are, based on current knowledge, logically fallacious and, on average, likely to fail. They are scientifically flawed.

Are they, however, ethically flawed? Disclosure may be both logically unneccessary and scientifically irrelevant, but that doesn’t ipso facto make it wrong. While I understand and sympathise with While I understand and sympathise with Allan-John Marsh’s (Spokesperson for the Wellington-based Gay Association of Professionals) comments that the implications could be perceived to be insulting, that in itself does also not restrict the parents’ right to know such information. And here we get into the realm of parental rights.

Let’s assume a world in which we could predict, with 99.99% certainty, whether or not a fertilisation will result in a homosexual child. Do parents then have the right to prevent that fertilisation? Do they have the right to prevent the existence of that individual based solely on the fact that the individual will be a homosexual? Do parents have the right to abort a foetus based on the fact that it is going to be a homosexual?

I am personally not very sure. My initial and visceral reaction was no. However is that response rational or consistent with my own personal view of abortion in general, or is it unduly and irrationaly influenced by my views on homosexuality? Much of my unsureness stems from the arguments presented by Aaron Greenberg and J Michael Bailey in their paper Parental Selection of Children’s Sexual Orientation*. In the article, the authors examine and question many of the assumptions and propositions surrounding the arguments put forward by those who oppose such selection. While not necessarily agreeing with all of the conclusions of the paper, it nonetheless presents some compelling arguments about the potentially irrational basis of opposing such rights. It also presents quite compelling rational arguments that, yes, parents do have such rights, irrespective of their motives.

I am a budding biologist. I am not an ethicist, I am not a philosopher, and I am not a logician. With all the arguments surrounding the rights of parents to select the sexual orientation of the children, I am rationally out of my depth, as I suspect the majority of mankind probably is. I am human, though - a queer one at that. This means I don’t have to be rational all the time. I can be logically inconsistent, because my life is informed by more than rationality.

As a queer person, I am happy to be the result of probabilities, genetics, my social experience and my development. I know my parents wouldn’t choose for me or my lesbian sister to be anything other than what we are, and my blood boils at the idea that some parents would. Ideally our parents would let 4 billion years of evolution and the universal dice have their way, rather than choose which box we’re going to fit neatly into before we’re even conceived. Because in the end it shouldn’t matter. It doesn’t matter.

So sure, parents have the right to do choose - absolutely, rationally, logically, empirically. But what I would want to know is this: what would happen to a child who was specifically selected to be a heterosexual, but turned out, by some fluke of nature, to be gay? What would knowing you were, through no fault of your own, exactly what your parents did not want, in fact actively tried to avoid, do to you? What effect would it have on your intrinsic feelings of self-worth, your validity as a human being? Who would love that child? It’s hard enough for many to be gay in a world where parents can’t decide. A world where nature blindly defied that decision on your behalf is one I don’t want to envisage, and one I certainly don’t want to live in.

*Greenberg A and JM Bailey. 2001. Parental Selection of Children's Sexual Orientation. Archives of Sexual Behaviour 30(4):423-437

Disclaimer: This last paper was very controversial, as has been some of the subsequent work of J. Michael Bailey. In 2003, Bailey was investigated for potentially unethical research and reporting practices for his book The Man Who Would Be Queen, about the transgendered community. The complaint was upheld and Dr Bailey resigned his position as Chair of Psychology at Northwestern University. I have considered these factors before referencing his work. I am still of the opinion that the arguments raised by Bailey and Greenberg are valid and worthy of addressing. I have a copy of the journal article and a response to it if readers would like to examine in it for themselves.