Biology, Behavior, and Gay Babies:
General Bioethics — By Joe Carter on March 16, 2007 at 12:15 am
Why Sexual “Orientation” is Ultimately Irrelevant
Dr. Albert Mohler has been under fire recently for his suggestion that a biological basis for homosexuality may be proven, and that prenatal treatment to reverse gay orientation would be biblically justified. Some on the right, including Christians, are upset that he would concede the obvious point that there may be a biological basis for sexual orientation. Others on the left, including many homosexuals, are upset that he would admit the obvious point that if there is a biological basis for sexual orientation people may want to change it by medical intervention. Both complaints reveal that that the issue of sexual orientation is often approached emotionally rather than rationally.
Two years ago I argued that those on both sides of the issue would be able to better defend their positions if they would agree that while there is a (likely) biological basis for the homosexual orientation, it is ultimately irrelevant since sexual activity is freely chosen behavior.
Unfortunately, this is the very idea that gay rights activists have been working against for several decades. They’ve often been the biggest proponents of finding a ‘gay gene’ or some type of neurological explanation for sexual orientation. By finding a genetic cause, it’s often believed, it will remove any doubt that individuals have no choice in the matter. They are simply “born that way.”
Ironically, if such an explanation is found it could have just the opposite effect of what is hoped for. As Francis Fukuyama speculates in Our Posthuman Future:
Assume that in the twenty years we come to understand the genetics of homosexuality well and devise a way for parents to sharply reduce the likelihood that they will give birth to a gay child. This does not have to presuppose the existence of genetic engineering; it could simply be a pill that provided sufficient levels of testosterone in utero to masculine the brain of the developing fetus. Suppose the treatment is cheap, effective, produces no side effects, and can be prescribed in the privacy of the obstetrician’s office. Assume further that social norms have become totally accepting of homosexuality. How many expecting mothers would opt to take this pill?
Fukuyama believes that most parents would choose to take such a pill. I think he’s right. Even if homosexual orientation were considered a benign trait such as baldness or left-handedness, the majority of parents would opt to have a “straight” child (“What if we want grandchildren?”). Anyone who disagrees is overestimating the level of acceptance that even “tolerant” people have toward homosexuality. Likewise, anyone who thinks this scenario is unlikely hasn’t being keeping up with advances in biotechnology. The only thing far-fetched about this picture is the idea that it’ll be twenty years before it becomes a reality.
The question then is what will happen to gays and lesbians when homosexuality becomes “preventable?” My guess it that it won’t be long before “being gay” is once again classified under the ‘disease model” of behavior and is considered a ‘treatable” condition. We shouldn’t forget that it was only recently that psychiatry let go of its hold on this “disorder.” Until 1987, ‘ego-dystonic homosexuality” was still classified as a pathology in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-II).
The fact that the vast majority of gay people will not feel a corresponding desire to be ‘treated” will be deemed irrelevant. When alcoholism became a ‘disease” the onus was put on the individual to ‘get help” whether it was desired or not. If an alcoholic says that she can live and function just fine with her ‘condition”, she is considered in denial. If she won’t seek help for herself, the family and friends are encouraged to participate in an ‘intervention” to persuade her.
It might surprise you to know that most evangelicals would be equally appalled by the idea that homosexuality should be considered a ‘mental illness.’ But orthodox Christianity holds a high regard for human dignity. By classifying such behavior as a sickness it removes the moral responsibility for the behavior from the individual. The value of human dignity is denigrated when free will and responsibility are replaced by biological determinism.
From the evangelical viewpoint, homoerotic desire might very well have a biological basis. It is not the desire, however, but the activity that is considered immoral. Desire may be determined by genetics but acting upon that desire in the form of sexual activity requires a freely chosen decision. An adolescent heterosexual male, for example, is certainly driven to distraction by his hormonal urge to reproduce. The desire is natural and outside of the young man’s control. He would not be justified, however, in satisfying that desire in any way that he pleases. While the desire is natural, it can manifest in immoral and self-destructive behavior.
Though our gay and lesbian neighbors wouldn’t agree, we evangelicals should never forget that the reason God forbids this activity is because it is ultimately harmful to the homosexual, for it impedes human flourishing. We have a duty, therefore, to speak out when our fellow humans are causing harm to themselves. When the issue is framed as one of biology rather than behavior, though, we appear to be patronizing busybodies rather than concerned citizens attempting to uphold the worth and dignity of these individuals. This is unfortunate and should be rectified by communicating our love for the person, rather than just our revulsion over the behavior.
For better or for worse, science will ultimately eradicate any biological basis for homosexual “orientation.” What won’t be eradicated, however, is homosexual behavior. From the soldier’s camps of ancient Rome to our present-day prisons, same-sex sodomy has remained a persistent sexual practice among those who consider themselves to be heterosexual. Eradicating the “orientation” will not eliminate the behavior.
Which puts gays and lesbians in a peculiar position. If they base their arguments on the premise that the orientation is “natural” because it has a basis in nature, what happens when the foundation is removed? If they truly believe there is nothing unnatural about such behavior they will have to argue their case based on non-biological factors. Otherwise, when the ‘cure’ is found they will find they’re no longer a ‘special interest group’ but a ‘pathology’ to be treated.
In order to prevent this issue from being determined by psychiatrists, homosexuals and evangelicals should agree that while we might not be responsible for our sexual urges we are accountable for our sexual behavior. This probably won’t lead to an agreement about whether such behavior is benign or immoral. But at least we will be able to discuss the issue with our human dignity intact.
Update: Dr. Mohler has provided a response that clarifies his views.