Sunday, December 31, 2006

Gay Sheep and the Gods of Medicine

The riot act is being read to American scientists who are experimenting with hormones that will take the swish out of the ram:

SCIENTISTS are conducting experiments to change the sexuality of “gay” sheep in a programme that critics fear could pave the way for breeding out homosexuality in humans.

The technique being developed by American researchers adjusts the hormonal balance in the brains of homosexual rams so that they are more inclined to mate with ewes.

It raises the prospect that pregnant women could one day be offered a treatment to reduce or eliminate the chance that their offspring will be homosexual. Experts say that, in theory, the “straightening” procedure on humans could be as simple as a hormone supplement for mothers-to-be, worn on the skin like an anti-smoking nicotine patch.

The research, at Oregon State University in the city of Corvallis and at the Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, has caused an outcry. Martina Navratilova, the lesbian tennis player who won Wimbledon nine times, and scientists and gay rights campaigners in Britain have called for the project to be abandoned.

Navratilova defended the “right” of sheep to be gay. She said: “How can it be that in the year 2006 a major university would host such homophobic and cruel experiments?” She said gay men and lesbians would be “deeply offended” by the social implications of the tests.

But the researchers argue that the work is valid, shedding light on the “broad question” of what determines sexual orientation. They insist the work is not aimed at “curing” homosexuality.

Homophobic and cruel experiments? Sheep have a "right" to be gay? I don't remember reading that clause in the "Universal Charter for Animal, Vegetable and Minaeral Rights". As a matter of fact, I don't remember the charter at all. But I'm sure that clause is in there right between "broccoli have the right to choose their sexual partners" and "metals cannot be alloyed with other metals without their consent".

Moving beyond the laughable hysteria, this opens up important matters to consider with regard to human reproduction. How would the traditional morality natural law crowd view the use of hormone patches by pregnant women to ensure straight children? On the one hand it can be viewed as enforcing the natural order of things. On the other hand it can be viewed as "playing God" and engaging in genetic engineering.

Given that the treatments do not alter the genes themselves, but just modify how the genes are expressed during development, it strictly doesn't qualify as genetic engineering. You can look at it as an extension of a regimen of proper pre-natal nutrition.

On the other side, the gay rights crowd could argue from a conservative position that the hormonal regimen is an attempt to nullify or reverse the proper expression of genes, which they could argue from a religious perspective is God's true intent for the child.

That, in essence, would be an argument on behalf of the gene's rights. Selfish gene supporters would applaud, but such a position could not fly without overruling all existing laws permitting abortion. If genes have any rights, then they have the right to see their handiwork come to fruition.

Gay rights supporters could also argue on behalf of the unborn child's right to be born gay, which again would require the negation of abortion rights. But the sticky point in that argument is that until the gay gene is expressed during development, the child does not have a gay orientation. If the hormone patch succeeds in overruling the gay gene, then the child would be born straight, and would have a right to live straight. This approach would make us a prisoner to our genes.

If our genes determine that we will be born deformed, would anyone argue that we have a right to be deformed? Actually this road has already been travelled, sort of. The deaf community vehemently opposes the use of cochlear implants for hard of hearing children, saying that it threatens to wipe out deaf culture. This argument is predicated on the notion of "group rights" moreso than individual rights, and is the closest parallel to what gay rights groups are really arging for.

You can look at it as a kind of turf battle between competing gangs, with the gene pool being the turf. The gays lay claim to that portion of the pool that in all likelihood will end up gay, and doesn't want straight culture "poaching" on their turf, through medical, educational or social intervention. The deafs do the same. You see group right arguments at play with adoption politics, where adoptions of black children are forbidden to white couples. It is the driving force behind multiculturalism, where people are defined by their ethnic/racial heritage and not their individual wants and desires.

Group rights schemes go totally against our notion of individual rights. Having said that, it doesn't answer the question of whether hormonal therapies to affect genetic expression during gestation are a good idea. It opens the door to many other possible avenues for parents to create designer babies. What if there were a hormone that did the opposite, and made it more likely that a baby would be born gay? Or what if you could breed future 7 foot giants in the womb, would we allow parents to do this in the hopes of retiring on their future son's NBA contract?

I long ago determined that with the advent of genetic technologies we no longer have the option of not playing God. Playing God is not about using Godlike powers but in having Godlike powers. We are developing the knowledge of those powers presently. Even refusing to use those powers is an act of playing God, because it is a choice between differing outcomes for children. If you determined that you would forego any and all genetic screening and therapy techniques when having a child, and your child were born with a very terrible but preventable condition, how would you answer her question as to why you didn't act to save her from her fate? In her eyes you played God with your decision. Gods commit sins of ommission as well as commission.


Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Headline in today's Maui News:


December 31, 2006 12:20 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Of course we're "playing God", that's what humans do. (And also what we're supposed to be doing; good training for the real deal).
As alluded to, any deliberate action or decision is Godlike, in that we apply our wisdom and powers, such as they are, to manipulating the world.

As far as "curing" homosexuality goes, being gay is clearly abnormal. It just makes sense to stop it from developing, if we can.
If anyone then wants to engage in same-sex behavior without being driven to do so, (and many do), have at.

Such a world would also put an end to nonsense about "insufficient funding for AIDS", since under those conditions it would be crystal-clear that homosexual behavior resulting in AIDS was just as much a choice as is sharing needles for IV drug use.

January 01, 2007 4:34 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

It is well within the realm of the possible to eliminate Tay-Sachs within a generation.

Is anyone willing to argue we shouldn't?

Homosexuality is completely different, though. In and of itself, it is the cause of nothing; it no more causes AIDS than heterosexuality causes syphilis. (Oroborous: should we deny antibiotics to syphilis sufferers?)

As for its being "abnormal," that is a word that gets used as if its meaning is clearly understood, when that often is not the case.

At something like 3% of the male population Homosexuality is statistically rare. There must be more to it than that, though. Those with blue eyes are roughly 11% of European populations, still statistically rare, yet no one would consider that an abnormality.

However, absent religionist opprobrium, someone born homosexual in a liberal democracy will likely go through a normal lifespan without any significant impediments, and likely completely unable to conceive being any other way.

Unlike Tay-Sachs, then, being born homosexual is no tragedy.

All that said, though, I'll bet most parents, a group in this case of which I would be a member, would elect to utilize any practical means of counteracting whatever mechanism causes innate homosexuality (which, since it may well be a process issue rather than a consequence of genotype, may well, unlike Tay-Sachs, be a permanent feature of humanity).

January 01, 2007 7:13 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

...should we deny antibiotics to syphilis sufferers?

"Such a world would also put an end to nonsense about 'insufficient funding for AIDS'..."

Per sufferer, we spend more on AIDS research than we do on cancer, although it should be noted that in America and in most other developed countries, half of the cases of cancer are essentially self-inflicted - due to poor behavior.

As for its being "abnormal," that is a word that gets used as if its meaning is clearly understood, when that often is not the case.
At something like 3% of the male population Homosexuality is statistically rare. There must be more to it than that, though.

Yes, there is.

If homosexuality were the norm, the human race would have died out long ago. Instead, we breed. Ergo, hetero- is the norm.

"Abnormal" isn't the same as "abominable".

January 01, 2007 7:35 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

A physician friend of mine once observed, 'Eventually, everybody who wants AIDS will get it.'

That's true, I think, in No. American conditions. Maybe not in places like Africa.

I remain agnostic about 'gay genes' though I am certain there is not 'a gay gene.'

The difference being that there seems to be a smooth continuum of sexual preferences across groups. This suggests to me that that there is not a G gene whose absence or presence makes you homosexual or straight, but a bunch of replicated genes (or replicated complexes), so that the more (or fewer) you have switched on helps determine where on the sexual attraction scale you fall.

Can't prove it. Just a thought. But it fits what we know about other gene expression much, much better than 'homosexuality is inborn' or 'homosexuality is social.'

January 01, 2007 9:31 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


Sorry, I had overlooked your valid point about AIDS funding. It is particularly egregious, considering AIDS practically unique in its being a disease one can choose to completely avoid.

If homosexuality were the norm, the human race would have died out long ago. Instead, we breed. Ergo, hetero- is the norm.

Like I said, your use of the term is purely a matter of statistics.


Some birth defects, among them cleft palate (IIRC), are all about gestational process, and have nothing to do with genetics.

In any event, given the tools women have at their disposal, and societies disincentives, I think the assumption sexual orientation is a matter of any choice whatsoever requires a great deal of skepticism.

January 01, 2007 10:00 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

I dunno, Skipper, if we think it is behavioural we try and stamp it out as a perversion and if we think it is genetic we try and eradicate it through genetics. Not a happy situation.

For those looking for a ripping good read, I recommend Crichton's Next, which I got for Christmas. I can understand why he drives serious scientists nuts with his improbably dystopic plots, but he sure puts "noble" selfless scientists and academics in their place. What was really weird was he reprints a large number of press releases from recent years about claims and "discoveries' in genetics. They must be real or near-real because we blogged about lots of them.

What he does show pretty persuasively is that all the talk we keep hearing about gay genes or sociability genes or polite genes or whatever is way, way out of control and often rests on little foundation.

January 01, 2007 10:53 AM  

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