Born this way? Selecting for sexual preference
Doctors Offering ‘Gay Gene’ To Same Sex Couples Wanting Gay Children: apparently Dr. William Strider at the Fertility Center of Chicago suggests that homosexual parents should have the option of increasing the chances of their kid being homosexual:
“When straight couples have children, the majority of them want their children to be straight as well. That is why most straight parents have trouble accepting it when their children announce to them that they are gay,” … “So it only makes sense that same-sex couples would want children that carried out their same family values of homosexuality.”
The article is likely reporting wrong on what method would be used: germline manipulation sounds like a unproven and risky approach, while PGD is a proven technique that could presumably select based on X-chromosome sequence. And given the topic it is not implausible that Dr. Strider is being misquoted. But let’s take everything at face value: would it be ethical to select for sexual preference?
There are several considerations: first, is it even possible to select for preference? Second, would it be moral? And third, “family values of homosexuality”?!
Fluid genes and preferences
There is no “gay gene”, but like religiosity or political leanings there is a genetic component. There is also very clearly an individual specific environmental component, affecting both what preferences people develop and what partners they actually end up seeking out. Overall, the results suggest a moderate heritability around 0.4 and that the effect is polygenetic. Selecting for a particular preference would hence be probabilistic: parents would merely tilt the probability one way or another. There would not be any guarantee of a particular outcome even if we had perfect genome scans.
Saying sexual preferences has nothing to do with choice is problematic. While it might make a good rhetorical strategy against anti-LGBTQ moralists (since if there is no choice, one cannot claim it is immoral) it both lends itself to medicalization, and it actually dismisses the empirical fluidity of human preferences and behaviour. People can in principle learn to enjoy or dislike almost anything: the real question is whether we let them develop their values on their own or force them to behave and feel in particular ways. That conversion therapy currently doesn’t work does not mean it cannot ever work; however, even in a world where it is flawless it might still be immoral under many conditions. The key point is individual rights: people have the right to determine who and how to love for themselves, subject only to a Millian constraint on not harming others. This is in my opinion a far stronger rejoinder to the anti-LGBTQ people.
But genetic selection circumvents this and places us in the nonidentity problem. In many ways this is standard fare for the discussion of genetic selection: what rights do parents have to select what children they have?
Michael Sandel-type arguments that one should accept the Given clearly argue against selecting preferences (and as a parent learn to love whatever choices the child makes). One could argue that selection harms the child by reducing its future options, but in this case it is unlikely to actually change the options much (since preferences have non-genetic factors and the selection is probabilistic).
A more real concern would be parental expectations. Overbearing parents are a problem in any case, but controlling their children’s sexuality may be particularly pernicious (especially since it is something that starts to come into play at an age when parental control typically starts to slip and the child is becoming more mature): there is a risk that the selection will both be a product of and a reinforcer of pathological parental expectations (gay or straight).
I generally think the principle of procreative beneficence works well as a guide for genetic selection. Except that the principle states one should select for the genome that is expected to give the best life: in many societies oppression of LGBTQ people actually gives a reason to select against them. This is a case where selection could actually entrench bad societal values. If selection is costly it might also be a social marker since well-off parents could avoid having gay children (the moderate heritability of preference and genetic fluidity of society makes it unlikely that this would become genetically stratified across society, but signalling may still be present). If selection is easy, it would over time presumably make gay people less common (although there may be a lot of “gay genes”, some linked to desirable traits) and make tolerance worse.
These two societal objections seem to have some merit. In most discussions about genetic selection they come into play relative to enhancements of health or intelligence, or from a disability perspective.The problem is not the technology or selection, but that parents and society are doing something wrong and we should focus on fixing that: the technology is of relatively minor importance compared to promoting tolerance, individual liberty, and loving parents with realistic expectations. This clearly applies to selection of preferences too, perhaps even more strongly. (Compare with gender selection) Controlling what parents may select for “for the common good” is less effective than making society cherish its minorities.
Selecting for preference might also be a waste of selection power: there are many genetic goods like health, intelligence and longevity that we would wish to increase in our offspring, and “using up” selection power on the less relevant sexual preference trait may be a bad use of the technology since it has less effect on well-being. Again, this is mostly an empirical matter of technology, but it is relevant to consider how much we actually care about certain traits and when we overestimate their importance.
Family values of homosexuality
Perhaps the most odd part of Strider’s statement is the idea that there are some kind of homosexual family values.
People certainly have individual and cultural values about how the family looks, what it is for, etc. Some people hold the view that the traditional heterosexual family is the right one, and no doubt there are some people that have equally firm ideas of some non-heterosexual ideal family. But it is worth noting that there are also (at least in US culture) a vast majority who think society should value any type of family, and “loving, taking care of, and supporting each other” is by far more common as an answer than “a traditional family” on what family values is. I somehow doubt there would be a lot of gay parents flocking to the clinic to ensure that their kid would have the right preferences.
One could also see the selection going either way. Gay people, being far more aware of prejudice and oppression against them than most straight people, may actually be more willing to consider having a straight kid than a gay one. It might be more relevant for the hypothetical gay family value people wanting to select to select the gender of the child rather than its preferences if they envisioned a particular kind of family. And so on: it is hard to second-guess what people wish for.
The real problem may simply be that we assume family values have to be unified across a society, and this gets reinforced by institutions or practices. But if recent cultural changes are any guide it is possible to push back and change even strongly entrenched systems. Given the fluidity of human preference and the randomness of gene expression it is also unlikely that a future society will be homogeneous in sexual or family preferences unless we seriously fail at maintaining liberal values.
What would I, as a married gay man choose for my (so far) hypothetical child? When I consider this, I think having more options seems to be better. Thus I would probably want to select for bisexuality rather than any particular “monosexuality”. But I would care far more about the child having wider options for its life projects in the form of health, intelligence and longevity.