Monday, March 19, 2007

Designer Babies: Turn Your Gay Baby Straight?

Everybody's talking about this post by the president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Albert Mohler: Is Your Baby Gay? What If You Could Know? What If You Could Do Something About It?

Money quote:

If a biological basis is found, and if a prenatal test is then developed, and if a successful treatment to reverse the sexual orientation to heterosexual is ever developed, we would support its use as we should unapologetically support the use of any appropriate means to avoid sexual temptation and the inevitable effects of sin.

Lots of folks are upset about this. I'm not sure I am. I would strongly oppose government-mandated treatment of fetuses to ensure heterosexuality, but I don't think I could fault parents for wanting their babies to be straight, given a reasonable choice. While I don't think homosexuality (including homosexual sex) is immoral, there's no doubt that being homosexual can be challenging and if parents want to spare their children that particular difficulty, I don't see what the problem is. It would be kind of sad and possibly harmful to have less sexual diversity in the human race, but I don't think that is sufficient reason to disallow it.

What about genetic/hormonal treatment for other traits? As science progresses, we might be able to alter fetuses in ways we can now barely imagine. I wonder whether Rev. Mohler would support parents who want to treat fetuses for tendencies towards being religious, for example?

Which of the following traits should parents be allowed to alter, assuming a treatment becomes possible? Which should they be encouraged or discouraged from altering?

  1. Fatal disease
  2. Chronic but manageable disease
  3. Eye/hair color or other minor cosmetic changes
  4. Height
  5. Deafness/blindness (preventing or causing, as some deaf parents might wish)
  6. Tendencies towards addictions, obesity, or anorexia
  7. Tendencies towards being generous
  8. Intelligence
  9. Athletic ability
  10. Tendencies towards or away from religion
  11. Tendencies towards or away from fundamentalist thinking
  12. Skin color, epicanthal folds, and other distinguishing racial characteristics
  13. Lactose intolerance
  14. Tendencies towards happiness or optimism
  15. Tendency towards political party
  16. Tendencies towards wanting to be a doctor
  17. Having six fingers or toes
  18. Musical ability
  19. Sexual appetite or lack thereof
  20. Tendencies towards introversion/extroversion, conscientiousness, openness, agreeableness, or other personality traits
Isn't this going to be a fun can of worms? Even without the ability to change many of these traits, we may be able to screen for them, which will lead to questions about selective abortion. Let's avoid that discussion for now as it would probably overwhelm the more interesting (to me) question of genetic or hormonal treatment of fetuses.

Some of my thoughts were inspired by Reason Magazine's discussion.


CyberKitten said...

Even there is such a thing as a gay gene or genes which may or may not predispose a person to be gay... I don't think that the parents have any right or justification to impose their ideas on that child for whatever reason they can come up with.

'Treatment' of the unborn child implies that there is something wrong with its development. Whilst I have no issue with addressing fetal abnormalities I certainly don't regard homosexuality as part of that category.

Orthoprax said...


"I don't think that the parents have any right or justification to impose their ideas on that child for whatever reason they can come up with."

Why? Would that be playing God? ;-)

If you could manipulate a fetus to be smarter is that 'imposing' something on the child? There have been cases where deaf parents, who see the deaf community as some sort of culture, _selected_ an embryo for deafness. What if autistic folks - some of whom perceive their disorder as simply a different way of thinking and hardly a disorder at all - began selecting their children for autism?

Suppose the opposite was true and gay parents were going to manipulate an otherwise straight fetus to be gay.

I do not believe there is a homosexual gene or an autistic gene but that these are developmental disorders which have their origins sometime in utero. While one could argue that both are simply alternate human traits, I do not believe that is accurate. You're not harming anyone by ensuring that they're not going to be autistic anymore than ensuring that they wouldn't be gay.

Personally though, I envision a world not where fetuses are being manipulated but simply where the desired genes are selected before conception.

Genetics is hardly an anything goes process - you're stuck with the genes you've got and then it's a roll of the dice to see which one's come up. If a person carries both blue eyes and brown eyes genes, why is it so wrong that they do some insider betting and ensure that the phenotype they want comes out the winner?

Orthoprax said...


For the record, too, I wrote about this last June. ;-)

Michael said...

Selection for height leads to arms races. The advantages of being taller come from being taller than others, not from intrinsic advantages of height.

Reducing generosity, intelligence, or most abilities has public negative externalities.

In general, selection of sorts with negative externalities should be banned.

That would include selection for religiosity/fundamentalism if it was politically viable to say that religiosity has negative externalities, a-la Voltaire's "those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities".

Causing deafness or blindness is no more ethical because you do it via embryo selection than if you do it by blinding or deafening someone. Same with any other affliction or generally undesired feature/tendency. However, most genes will not have a simple effect such as "causes anorexia" but a complex impact on personality which increases the possibility of anorexia.

In practice, racial traits are pretty complex and won't be easily modified. Easier to change cosmetically if that is desired.

The rest seem fair game to me.

BaconEating AtheistJew said...

How about aborting the child if it would have a strong tendency to be a Young Earth Creationist?

Too harsh?

beepbeepitsme said...

Once humans became aware of genetics and how they can impact upon our physical selves, we have been busy trying to work out how to improve our "genetic status."

Afterall, it IS what we do with crops, livestock and pets. Sometimes religious people confuse this with biological evolution (natural selection).

They shouldn't. Natural selection occurs without a human intent or prescribed agenda. Artifical selection, that is, deliberately selecting for a desired outcome, is what human beings do.

Where do I stand on this issue? It is a difficult one.

When we begin to select for human traits as we do for crops and livestock, we run the same risks that we run when we do it for crops and livestock.

One of the major risks is the risk to bio-diversity. Crops with identical genes run the risk of falling prey to a cataclysmic genetic event which may not destroy a bio-diverse crop.

Selecting arbitarily for genetic traits without an indepth understanding of how the survival of a species may depend on genetic diversity is laden with problems.

For example: It is known that people of african descent are more likely to carry the gene for sickle cell anemia. It is also known that the gene for sickle cell anemia also protects against malaria.

Selecting one genetic trait over another, may leave the individual more susceptible genetically to some another problem.

maya said...

I don't think parents should be allowed to custom-design their child like it's an object they're going to own. It's okay to prevent a disease that's physically harmful to the child, but anything beyond that should be left to nature (or god, if that's the way you think). It's just not right for a parent to be able to design their child. I don't see anything different between, say, a parent altering a child's genetics to make it straight or want to be a doctor and a parent forcing a child to go to med school or disowning a child because he/she is gay. The only difference is that if they alter the genetics, they predetermine what the child will (most likely) be, which is even more disturbing. It's not the parents' life, it's their child's.

Anonymous said...

The world's a horrible place full of disease and war. Who cares if a few extra peeps want dick.

Orthoprax said...


No doubt there will be many who will prefer not to take part in this eugenics (ooh, scary word!) project. They can hold all the crappy 'just in case of emergency' genes for humanity.

Though I don't think it would be difficult to design latent genes that individuals can hold without have them actually expressed as disease in any individual. But even so, I don't think malaria is reason enough to afflict people will sickle cell disease when there are rather cheap drugs out there that do the job with much less horrific side effects.

David said...

At the risk of opening another can of worms, consider this: Shouldn't the justification for manipulating a fetus's genetic makeup turn on whether that fetus has legal rights? The Christian Right may have a problem arguing that a fetus has some rights but not others.

michelle said...

So, let me get this straight. There’s only ONE reason in the entire world that it is NOT ok to kill a pre-born child? As the pro-aborts are fond of saying regularly “Who are YOU to decide for ANY woman what to do with her body?” But, it’s ok to kill a pre-born child because he or she will grow up poor or fatherless or adopted or with a mental or physical disability?

I am laughing my butt off at some of the comments from “pro-choice” people who are also “pro-gay”. Some of them are verbatim from pro-life organization sites. They fail to see the irony in their "suddenly offended by abortion" objections. The horror of the gay community is understandable, yet the pro-aborts have consistently discounted the same objections to abortion that disability advocate groups have had for decades. NO ONE has the right to decide whether a life is worthy of being lived…except God.

Quite a dilemma, no? The hypocrisy is overwhelming yet predictable, and I’m watching closely to see how the pro-aborts handle this one.

Keebo said...

I believe that the only person who has any business deciding whether a baby is carried to term, or not, is the one doing the carrying.
Mother IS the god of that baby's universe. And we all know that if she WANTS to be rid of it, she WILL be rid of it, somehow, some way, regardless of the consequences to her own health.
We, as a compassionate society, should allow her to make that choice safely. It's her "egg" and she should decide to "hatch" it, or "crush" it. Her choice. Just like it is her choice if she wants to cut off her own arm. It may be a bad choice, but it's HER choice. It's her body.
Do we, as a society, have an interest in forcing women to gestate children against their will?
No, we do not.
So, I guess you could call me "pro-choice."
I find the idea of aborting a child, SIMPLY AND ONLY because it is gay, to be reprehensible. But it's still her choice. The bigotry that motivates this act is something with which she will have to learn to live.
It IS a bigoted act. But she should not be prevented by society.
Let's ask the question this way: Is it a bigoted act for a woman to put up her child for adoption, SIMPLY AND ONLY because it is born a different race than she had expected. Is it a bigoted act?
What about skin-color? What if she could take a pill, or a procedure, that could alter a black child's skin-color, or features? Blacks have a hard time in this world, too. Are there mothers who would lighten their baby's skin-color? Sure there are. Is it a bigoted act? Of course it is.
How about aborting for gender? Hateful idea? Sure. And mom will have to look within her heart, and decide why she wants to do something so hateful, but it IS her decision to make. Her body, her baby.
(And for those of you who think that race and sexual orientation are not equivalent, because you think being gay is a choice -- you are wrong. Both are innate. Both are unchangeable. It is only a matter of time before THAT fact is proved by science. Trust me, it's the same issue.)

Christina said...

Is it true that in this day of age you are able to change your child's skin complexion and if so will that affect any other part of your child?