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Revisiting the Gay Gene Does It Exist? Can and Should It Be Reversed?

Revisiting the Gay Gene Does It Exist? Can and Should It Be Reversed?

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On May 3, 2007, the US House of Representatives voted 237-180 to expand the definition of a federal hate crime to include acts committed against someone on the basis of his or her gender or sexual orientation. The fact that this vote generated so much controversy—President Bush threatened to veto the measure, and religious groups have countered that it violates their right to free speech—serves as a reminder of how contentious an issue homosexuality continues to be in the United States.

Ongoing genetic research promises to fuel the “gay debate” even further. Now, some scientists are claiming that they may be able to identify the genetic predisposition toward homosexuality in fetuses and test-tube embryos. Some speculate further, claiming that eventually there may be a way to reverse homosexuality in utero. This assertion poses a major threat to any religious organization which maintains that homosexuality is a learned, rather than an inborn, trait. However, as research mounts and genetic testing becomes available to a wider range of parents-to-be, both religious and gay rights groups may be forced to re-think their views on genetic engineering, abortion, and the very nature of sexuality.

Nature vs. Nurture: What We Know So Far

Formal scientific research into the possible genetic basis of homosexuality has been a relatively recent phenomenon. In fact, it was not until 1973 that the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders.

In 1991, neuroscientist Simon LeVay announced that he had identified a notable difference between the brains of homosexual and heterosexual men. In another study conducted that same year, Boston University psychiatrist Richard Pillard and Northwestern University psychologist J. Michael Bailey found a higher rate of homosexuality among identical twins (who share the same genetic makeup) than among fraternal twins.

A major breakthrough occurred in 1993, when Dean Hamer announced his findings in a study that sparked the ongoing “gay gene” debate. In a study of several pairs of brothers, Hamer found that pairs in which both brothers were gay shared DNA markers on the X chromosome at a higher rate than pairs in which one brother was gay and the other straight. While Hamer’s study by no means proved that a “gay gene” exists, it has helped shift the focus of sexual orientation-based research to pinpointing the biological causes of homosexuality, rather than the social ones.

Recent studies have focused on everything from pheromones and fetal exposure to estrogen to a “master genetic switch” that, when manipulated, can change the sexual preference of fruit flies. This cumulative body of research strongly suggests that homosexuality, at least to some degree, is an inborn trait.

Consider this research in light of the advances that are taking place in the field of genetic testing. Already, doctors can screen embryos for a number of traits, such as eye color, height, and certain diseases, using a procedure called Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD). Through this procedure, a doctor can test the DNA of embryos grown in a petri dish before implanting them into a woman’s uterus. Parents concerned with a history of chromosomal disorders, such as Huntington’s disease, diabetes, or breast cancer, can now screen their embryos before implantation to ensure that they do not pass these undesired traits on to their children. If sexual orientation becomes as easy to identify as, say, Down’s syndrome, parents will have the option of discarding any embryos that do not adhere to the sexual norm.

A Question of Ethics

With the supposition that sexual orientation is at least in part genetic, and with the technology available to identify an embryo’s genetic makeup prior to implantation, society will soon face an ethical conundrum of enormous scope and dimension. As Tyler Gray points out in a recent Radar article on the implications of gene testing for pro-choice, pro-life, and gay rights groups, “the arrival of ‘gay gene’ testing will force activists on all sides to re-examine long-held pieties.”

Gray argues that conservative pro-life groups (who are, in general, morally opposed to homosexuality) will have to decide whether “the public shame of having a gay child outweighs the private sin of terminating a pregnancy.” Pro-choice advocates, claims Gray, will also have to re-evaluate their long-held views. After all, how many of these advocates will be as accepting of abortion when “thousands of potential parents are choosing to filter homosexuality right out of the gene pool?”

Add to this dilemma the fact that some scientists believe a potential “treatment” may be discovered to reverse homosexuality before a child is even born. Would such a treatment deny a child its right to be born gay? Would doctors and parents, in effect, be “playing God?”

“Designer Babies” and the Slippery Slope We Tread

Journalists, bloggers, and church leaders are quick to warn of the potential for a domino effect in the realm of genetic testing. First we test for diseases, then eye color, then sexual orientation, then personality and intelligence, and on and on. With the ability to pre-screen the genes of embryos before implantation, many see the potential for creating “designer babies.” In their 2002 report entitled Genetics and Human Behaviour: The Ethical Context, the UK-based Nuttfield Council on Bioethics warned that the testing of human embryos and unborn fetuses for undesirable traits is “morally unacceptable.” Just five years later in April 2007, it was announced that two British couples would be the first people in the world to screen their embryos for the mutant gene linked to breast cancer.

Public reaction to this announcement was predictable, says Tom Shakespeare, a research fellow at the Institute for Policy and Practice at Newcastle University in Britain. “I can already sense the outrage brewing,“ he notes in an online column. “Furious responses from pro-life campaigners are being drafted as I write.”.

However, Shakespeare sees little cause for worry, especially if genetic testing is only used to spare families the pain of suffering through debilitating diseases. “I do believe that having a high chance of contracting a serious cancer is a good reason to use embryo selection,” he says. “We should all be grateful that medicine can reduce the impact of disease.”

Interestingly, some Christian leaders have a similar attitude towards genetic testing for homosexuality. In his advice column, Albert Mohler, the ninth president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, explores the prospect of genetic testing in an advice column for Christians. Mohler writes, "If a biological basis [for homosexuality] 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.” Mohler concludes, “If such knowledge should ever be discovered, we should embrace it and use it for the greater good of humanity and for the greater glory of God.”

Reason to Worry?

Opponents of PGD have warned of the dire effects of manipulating the gene pool, even going so far as to draw parallels between today’s genetic testing and the genetically engineered offspring in 1997’s science-fiction thriller Gattaca. However, commentators such as Mark Henderson of the UK’s Times Online are quick to point out that such “dystopian potential is firmly limited by science.”

Case in point: PGD can only be performed with in vitro fertilization (IVF), an invasive procedure that is usually only sought out by parents who cannot conceive. For those who are naturally fertile, and for the millions of couples who simply cannot afford it, IVF is hardly an attractive option. If it eventually becomes possible to identify the signs of homosexuality in unborn fetuses, this technology will likely be too costly for most couples.

Furthermore, it is hard to imagine a future in which no parents are morally opposed to hand-picking the genetic traits of their children—and for that matter, a world in which we have perfected the subtle art of contraception. There will almost certainly be enough moral opposition and enough “oops” babies to preserve the integrity of our collective gene pool.

So whether the “gay gene” exists, and whether we will ever be able to test for or reverse it, its very mention incites the kind of moral contemplation that can only enrich society’s ethical and intellectual capital. It starts a conversation that is not likely to end for decades to come, until a compromise between religion, sexuality, and science has finally been forged.

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