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.

(Interior)designer babies

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.

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3 Responses to Born this way? Selecting for sexual preference

  • Davide says:

    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). <— that and it does not truly reduce the child future options, since it's not like they had the option to simply choose to be gay or straight (even though I agree human sexuality can be fairly flexible)

    Perhaps that is exactly what you mean when you mention the probabilistic aspect.

    Compare to, for example, selecting for eye or hair color; sure, it may be 'shallow', but with no selection it's not like the baby gets a choice. I don't believe we should make genetic randomness sacred, and even the concept of 'loving your children no matter what' I find problematic (though it is generally applied more to actions than innate charateristics)

    Plus it's not like it's altering an existing fetus, as it's selection, not modification.

    On the bisexuality part, Woody Allen may have been joking when he said it doubles your chances for a date, but in some sense it seems trivially true that the bisexual have more choice.
    I suppose someone could argue they have LESS choice because of how sexual drive works, so the 'rational'choice is sexuality? But I disgress. It might be an interesting argument, but it would be way more radical.

    I also find your point that gay couples might select for straight children because of society very reasonable;
    But have you considered there could also be a 'I want my genes to go on / I want grandchildren' component, since they might believe (reasonably) that a straight child is more likely to have offspring of their own, even if they expect society to be much more accepting in 20 or 30 years?

    Of course, this ties to family values and whetever people generally care strongly for having grandchildren. My understanding is that people who want children are in favour of grandchildren, too, but it might just be an intuition.

    Now, I do agree socially it might send some 'bad messages' to select for sexual orientation; but I don't think that, by itself, makes it wrong and that the parents have a responsability;

    Compare and contrast to selecting against genetic diseases – the idea is generally to make life easier for the child which I think is a good idea (and this is the principle of procreative benevolence, which sadly easily gets mixed up with coerced eugenics), and while it is true in some way it might make people who DO have that disease less socially accepted – because it promotes the vision of the diseased as 'lesser people' , it does not make the original choice wrong.

    It is an unfortunate consequence which should be dealt with, but it does not make banning the practice of selection or condemning it justified, in my opinion.
    (That is my general opinion on legitimate choices which can have bad, unintended social consequences, as I value individual freedom quite highly; I am sure others disagree however. Basically 'don't ban or condemn it, work around or against the negative effects')

    I think there may have also been cases of people selecting FOR disabilities, or at least, atypical charateristics, such as deafness or dwarfism – that I find more controversial, even though in some cases I can partially understand the parents' reasoning, while not agreeing with it.

    Basically, I agree with you on everything, especially on the 'health, intelligence and longevity' part generally being important;
    But it won't be easy to have society accept that, thanks to the sad history of Eugenics.

    I also strongly agree that trying to intentionally link sexual orientation to genetics is problematic even if it works against some anti-LGBT people as tactic;

    I'd rather just have people accept that one does not need to justify one's own preferences as long as they can be followed ethically, so the 'is sexuality genetic or learned' question is scientifically interesting, but morally irrilevant.
    Of course, that is a different subject which perhaps deserves its own discussion (and likely it has already been discussed on this blog in some form)

  • Justice Josipovic says:

    As someone who is gay and would like to have children, I would like to comment on behalf of the entire gay community that it is atrocious to insinuate that we would prefer to have a homosexual child. To think that just because we are gay, means we want a gay child is ridiculous. First and foremost, this article does make a good point that having a straight child would be more of a relief, as growing up as a homosexual, one would know the prejudice and issues faced with being homosexual and not want to have a gay child because they would not know how hard it is. However, the notion that anyone in the gay community would have the mentality and mindset to want to change their child’s gender (whether it be from straight to gay), is disgusting. The author of the article really misrepresents what being a parent is about, by even mentioning that they would prefer a bisexual child and if they had to choose would pick their child to not have “monosexuality”. also near the beginning of the article where it talks about preference being fluid and we can “in principle” learn to like and dislike anything, is completely wrong. sexuality is NOT fluid, unless your sexuality is a fluid sexuality (pansexuality, bisexuality etc..). And things like conversion therapy are not possible, and will never be possible. and for a gay man such as the author to say that, truly doesn’t know who he is. Regardless I think this whole article is ridiculous. It was well presented and structured, but the actual content is garbage.

    • Anders Sandberg says:

      I have no problem with people thinking I write garbage, but (1) I prefer when people explain where my reasoning is wrong, and (2) when they claim to speak for a community I am also a part of they better make sure they do not make that community look bad because of faulty reasoning. Speak for yourself, it is safer.

      First, I think it is true that rather few gay people would want to control the preferences of their kid. But there will always be a few – no matter what the group, there are always somebody with a weird view. The LGBTQ community is full of people with views an outsider would find paradoxical.

      Second, if you think I misrepresent what a parent is about, then could you please state what it is about?

      Third, how does not subscribing to preference essentialism and thinking there is no neuroscientific reason there couldn’t be an actual conversion therapy imply that I do not know who I am? It does not follow logically except from a very superficial misreading that assumes I somehow approve of changing away from being gay.

      Fourth, how would anybody know who they truly are?

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