Monday, January 01, 2007

'Gay' sheep, Science and Ethics

Scientists are currently looking for ways to reduce homosexual behavior in sheep. Roughly 8% of rams prefer mating with other rams rather the ewes and this behavior appears to be a matter of biology. Now a endocrinological study attempting to modify this same sex behavior has come under fire as being perhaps unethical. According to an article in the Sunday Times of London (December 31 2006) scientists have been able to reduce the amount of homosexual behavior in sheep by modifying hormone levels in the sheep's brain.

This sort of thing ought to be good news for LBGT advocates because the sheep research strongly suggests an innate basis for sexual orientation. But as the article notes, the research has raised the ire of both animal rights activists and gay activists as well. Martina Navratilova defended what she sees as the sheep's 'right to be gay' and asserted that gays and lesbians would be "deeply offended" by the implications of this homophobic and cruel research. The article claims that the research could lead to ways that women could screen for and reduce the chance of having a child with same sex attractions. But see my next entry for an update on this claim and it's origin.

From my perspective as an LGBT person and a scientist, the research is important research in terms of getting at a fundamental understanding of sexual orientation. If some one is going to argue that sexual orientation is more than a matter of choice then this research ought to be supported. It is not after all sufficient to argue that same sex attraction is not a matter of choice and stop there. That sort of strategy is much like the intelligent design strategy of inferring the existence of an intelligent designer and stopping there, saying that the nature of the designer is outside the realm of science: bad strategy.

Obviously the research raises some ethical questions. Assume we can determine the possible sexual orientation of a child in utero and can intervene to modify this orientation. Should parents have the right to intervene to either abort or hormonally modify their offspring? On the one hand, reproductive rights are something many people have fought for over the last 50 years. How is letting women do this sort of thing any different? On the other hand, what are we doing to ourselves as a society if we allow people to do things that reduce the diversity of human experience for the sake of what we as parents want. If fetuses have some rights, is this sort of hormonal manipulation, merely another type of medical intervention such as prenatal surgery, or is it an immoral intervention insulting to the dignity of the person? I hope you see how this sort of issue has the potential of redefining many of the fault lines that divide us today.

I am not going to weigh in here (OK maybe a little)except to say that my tendency is to let these things be between the Doctor and the mother and let the social issues sort themselves out. I don't know what other option is really workable in a pluralistic society. I suppose we could draw a line and say no interventions into fetal development are allowed unless it is to prevent a very proscribed list of life threatening problems. In my mind the possible applications of the research sets up a conflict between several different principles that I deem important:

  • The right to individual self determination is important and needs to be defended against the State.
  • Social diversity is valuable and steps need to be taken to prevent excess homogenation of our society.
  • We need to consider what we as a civilization want for the future of our species.

Regardless of the ethical implications for humans, it seems the research is important and trying to stop the research is definitely the wrong thing to do. But we do need to get beyond some of the social issues that excise us and start having a meaningful social dialogue about some of these highly disruptive technologies that are in the pipe line. I think the dialogue we need is related to the following questions asked by Richard Dawkins in a short article which has been highly misinterpreted as being advocacy for eugenics:
"I wonder whether, some 60 years after Hitler'’s death, we might at least venture to ask what the moral difference is between breeding for musical ability and forcing a child to take music lessons. Or why it is acceptable to train fast runners and high jumpers but not to breed them. I can think of some answers, and they are good ones, which would probably end up persuading me. But hasn'’t the time come when we should stop being frightened even to put the question?"
Good but disturbing questions and as our scientific understanding of the interplay between genetics and environment continues to deepen, we are going to find ourselves less and less able to avoid them.

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