When it comes to homosexuality, those who support gay rights don't often find themselves agreeing with conservative Christians. Advances in biomedical technology, however, should push the two groups to agree that the biological basis for the homosexual orientation is irrelevant. Although their motivations may differ, each side has reasons for promoting the idea that sexual activity is freely chosen behavior.
Gay rights activists have, of course, been working against this idea for decades. They have been eager to find a genetic, hormonal, or neurological explanation for sexual orientation, which, they believe, will remove any doubt that individuals have no choice about their sexuality—and society will have no choice but to accept their sexual behavior as natural and normal.
Ironically, such an explanation could have just the opposite effect of what they hope for. As the Los Angeles Times recently reported, a prenatal pill used to prevent ambiguous genitalia may reduce the chance that a female with the disorder will be gay. A bioethicist quoted in the story worried that the treatment could lead to "engineering in the womb for sexual orientation."
The ability to chemically steer a child's sexual orientation has become increasingly possible in recent years, with evidence building that homosexuality has biological roots and with advances in the treatment of babies in utero. Prenatal treatment for congenital adrenal hyperplasia is the first to test—unintentionally or not—that potential.
No one who has followed the trajectory of eugenics-oriented biotechnology will be surprised that one the first targets for manipulation would be sexual orientation. In 2002 Francis Fukuyama speculated that within twenty years we would be able to devise a way for parents to sharply reduce the likelihood that they will give birth to a gay child. Even in a society in which “social norms have become totally accepting of homosexuality,” he argues, most parents would choose the treatment.
Fukuyama is right. Even if homosexuality were considered a benign trait such as baldness or left-handedness, the majority of parents would opt to have a heterosexual child (“What if we want grandchildren?”).
But what happens when a homosexual orientation becomes preventable? There is a chance, albeit unlikely, that the orientation will once again be classified—like alcoholism—under the disease model of behavior and considered a treatable condition. It was not until 1973 that the American Psychiatric Association declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder, and until 1987, ego-dystonic homosexuality was still considered a pathology in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the bible for mental health professionals.
More likely the effects of such change will occur privately, behind the doors of the IVF clinic, the obstetrician’s office, and the abortion clinic. Soon after technology made it possible to detect sex and chromosomal abnormalities, it became acceptable to abort baby girls and children with mental retardation. Children that possess the propensity to become gay will join these “less desirables” in being quietly eliminated before birth.
Although they will naturally abhor the aborting of such children, many conservative Christians will be amenable to changing sexual orientations in the womb. A prenatal treatment seems a humane solution for a moral problem, an easy way to deliver children from a particularly difficult temptation.
This acceptance of the “medicalization” of sexual orientations is misguided. Treating orientation as a malady promotes a reductionist view in which human behavior is explainable by chemical and physical laws. As we’ve seen in other areas of bioethics, reductionism inevitably undermines both moral autonomy and the dignity of the individual.
But even Christians who disagree with me should recognize that embracing the use of drugs and genetic engineering to correct for behavioral orientations opens the Pandora’s box of natal eugenics. Bioethicist Samuel Hensley also warns that rather than unconditionally accepting offspring as a gift of God, we will be tempted to redefine parenthood to include choosing the particular characteristics we want in children.
Christians should reject this cult of choice. We should be vigilant in expressing the truth that children are a blessing from God, not a product we manufacture to our specifications.
However, Christians can agree with the gay activists that homoerotic desire might very well have a biological basis. We can also rightly insist that acting upon that desire in the form of sexual activity requires a freely chosen decision. While we might not be responsible for our sexual urges, we are always accountable for our sexual behavior. If gay activists would agree with us on this point, we could form a tentative alliance against the type of eugenics that attempts to change someone's future behavior—or eliminate them entirely—while they are still in the womb.
But this would put gay activists in an awkward position. If they agree that sexual orientation does not require people to act on their orientation, they will have lost a key argument for pushing societal acceptance of their sexuality. Yet they could be harming their cause even more if they continue to argue that the orientation is normal and acceptable simply because it has a basis in our biological nature.
What will they say when the “cure” for homosexuality is discovered? How will they adjust when the societal expectation is that parents should have a child with such an orientation corrected or aborted? If homosexuals want to see their future, they should look at the plight of the children with Down Syndrome—assuming, of course, any such children can still be found.
We need an entente between Christians and gay activists to prevent the issue of homosexuality from being determined by genetic engineers and abortionists. This will not lead to an agreement about whether such behavior is benign or immoral. But at least we will be able to discuss the issue with our human dignity intact.
Joe Carter is web editor of First Things.
The Los Angeles Times, “Medical treatment carries possible side effect of limiting homosexuality”
Samuel D. Hensley's Designer Babies: One Step Closer
Francis Fukuyama's Our Postmodern Future