Monday, March 19, 2007

Gay Babies Revisited

It seems everyone in the noosphere has been hitting on Albert Mohler about the essay on his blog "Is Your Baby Gay?". PZ Myers ably notes the genetic issues involved, pointing out that there is is not likely to be a gay gene-this is not CSI after all. Also it needs to be noted that the source of Mohler's article is an article in Radar by Tyler Gray who manages to pick up some bad science on "gay sheep" that had previously been exposed as false.

That said, the issue still remains the use of prenatal testing and also prenatal treatments. As we learn more and more about the role of genetics and fetal environment, people will do increased genetic screening and attempt hormonal interventions. First of all I hope that prospective parents get their science from other sources than PETA (indirectly through Tyler Gray) or from Reverend Mohler whose scientific perspective on the issue contains such gems as:
"Given the consequences of the Fall and the effects of human sin, we should not
be surprised that such a causation or link is found. After all, the human
genetic structure, along with every other aspect of creation, shows the
pernicious effects of the Fall and of God's judgment."

Sorry Reverend, your theology makes no sense scientifically, and suggests why one might want to apply a religious test for politicians and others-namely because you don't want social decisions made on the basis of clearly bad science (even if the source of that science is theology).
http://www.albertmohler.com/blog_read.php?id=891

Getting back to PZ Myers comments. He is absolutely right about the genetic complexities involved in genetic testing beyond the low fruit of relatively easily screened disorders. When you get into complex disorders or behavioral predispositions the issue gets really murky. Consider alcoholism for instance. In April's 2007 Scientific American, an article by John I. Nurnberger, Jr., and Laura Jean Bierut looks at the genetics of alcoholism and notes while alcoholism has a strong genetic component we are still a long ways from being able to pin point all the causes. Genes after all interact with each other and environment in complex ways that we don't really understand.

I wonder if the Mohler article or the Gray article would have attracted much attention if they had been about alcoholism rather than homosexuality? My guess is probably not and as empirical evidence offer up a quickie Google comparison. As of today the search "Nurnberger + alcoholism" had 35,100 hits and "Mohler+Gay+Baby", a more restricted search had 94,500 hits. Interesting? So why is this?

My take on this is that we get more and more queasy about any sort of genetic screening and intervention, the more we enter the sphere of complex behaviors-especially behaviors that involve some sort of group identity. Here is a little test you might try yourself in terms of fetal intervention. Which of the following statements(with Apologies to Reverend Mohlers) bothers you the most:

"If a prenatal test is then developed, and if a successful treatment to reverse
the tendency to be an alcoholic is ever developed, we would support its use as
we should unapologetically support the use of any appropriate
means to avoid temptation and the inevitable effects of sin"

"...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."

"If a prenatal test is then developed, and if a successful treatment to reverse the
tendency to be a Baptist is ever developed, we would support its use as we
should unapologetically support the use of any appropriate
means to avoid temptation and the inevitable effects of sin"

"If a prenatal test is then developed, and if a successful treatment to reverse the
tendency to be an Atheist is ever developed, we would support its use as we
should unapologetically support the use of any appropriate
means to avoid temptation and the inevitable effects of sin"

Sound far fetched? Sure...but behavior and genetics do go together so it might not be so far outside the realm of possibility that attractions to certain types of religion or to even be religious might have some tenuous link to genetics, or maybe even prenatal developmental quirks.

We accept prenatal screening for clearly physical conditions, eg. PKU, Cystic fibrosis, Sickle cell anemia and yet dealing with behavior makes us really squeamish. It assails our notion that we have autonomy and control and it assails or sense of group identity. After all, religion is something that we take as part of our identification, as is sexual orientation, gender(read gender identity), ethnicity and race. We tend to want to label ourselves, put ourselves into groups. It gives us comfort and a sense of control and way of relating to others which seems pretty fundamental to humans.

But note what is interesting about these ways of identification. Some are clearly prenatally based with a relatively small over lay of choice afterwards-skin color and biological sex are good examples, gender identification and sexual orientation seem to to have prenatal and early post natal components-perhaps critical periods we just are not sure. This sort of thing may apply to alcoholism or depression and bipolar disorder as well. Religion is clearly a choice thing...but can we really discount the role of biology? So identity is not strictly about biological determinism but is on a continuum.

We don't want our identity threatened. For instance an article 1997 in the Advocate is titled: "Are We an Endangered Species", we referring to GLBT individuals. Of course we GLBT people are not a different species, the article raises the sector of using Eugenics to eliminate GLBT people:

"The dilemma posed by these conflicting value systems is exactly the issue that needs to be addressed, according to the Pro-Life Alliance of Gays and Lesbians. The group contends that if those who share Macklin’s viewpoint have their way, gay men and lesbians could be engineered and aborted out of existence. In a plea to other gays to support the group’s pro-life stance, its founder, Tom Sena, asked in a syndicated op-ed piece that ran in several publications in March, “What are gays and lesbians going to do now to prepare for a time when a woman’s ‘right to choose’ becomes a hunting license to exterminate our kind?” "
(emphasis mine).

You think that this sort of hyperbole is limited to GLBT people? Well consider those Christians who are concerned about the so called war on Christianity. Consider this article from the Washington Post which notes that some speakers compared Christians today to the Jews during Nazi Germany.

Or how about this site which warns:

"It is important to recognize that those who are working for the dissolution of our society have a spiritual agenda. They are not merely attempting to dismantle the historic cultural values of this nation and move us toward a homogenized world. They also want to destroy Christianity and Bible-based religion. It is a clear part of their agenda, and they have already moved a long way in that direction. "

Regardless of whether or not any of these claims are accurate, they do represent deeply held beliefs about threats to individual identity. This to me is where much of this concern about Mohler's article really stems from.

Ok so where I am I going here? First I agree with Myers and others that we really don't have enough information and knowledge to do what Mohler and other's seem to advocate. See for example:

http://theforcethat.blogspot.com/2006/06/natural-law-and-catholic-medical.html

for my basic position. It is ethically OK to do genetic screening in situations where genes have been clearly identified and fetal interventions where interventions have been clearly shown to be useful for otherwise medically harmful conditions. Being GLBT (or for that matter being Southern Baptist or having some genetically based predisposition to a certain religion) is NOT in the same league as PKU or CF. So talking about a prenatal cure for being gay makes no sense because how the genes, or for that matter the effects of prenatal environment, ultimately expressed depend on social factors and individual responsibility beyond the control of parents.

Mohler, in a sense is right, when he says we may not choose our sexual orientation but we are responsible for it. This responsibility is part of our need for identity and how we exercise this responsibility is contingent on the choices we make as autonomous individuals, intervening in those biological aspects of behavior, even were such possible eventually reduces our possible choices and reduces our scope of individual responsibility.

Mohler calls this whole issue a perfect storm because there are so many competing interests here. How could for instance liberals complain if a woman were to abort a fetus based on some test that showed that it might turn out gay? We might very well complain, quite frankly. I know I would just as I complain about prenatal sex selection. That said, in a pluralistic society some people are going to make ethical decisions we-liberal or conservative- are not going to like. That is the sort of trade off we make for having an open society composed of free individuals largely left alone to make their own ethical decisions. Who can complain about that?

Other links:

http://www.radaronline.com/from-the-magazine/2007/03/is_your_baby_gay_2.php

http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2007/03/finally_an_issue_that_gets_fun.php

http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?articleID=5C303E5F-E7F2-99DF-315ADC8A107AE976&ref=sciam&chanID=sa006

http://theforcethat.blogspot.com/2007/01/peta-and-gay-sheep-revisited.html

http://www2.ljworld.com/news/2007/mar/15/expand_newborn_screening/

http://www.eubios.info/PAPERS/PRENATAL.htm

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