Jan 18, 2007

The gay-sheep controversy [LINK]

In conjunction with PETA, openly gay tennis legend Martina Navratilova has issued a press release denouncing research on sheep that might, by manipulating hormone levels during prenatal development, change their future sexual orientation. (The rate of homosexuality among sheep runs usually high at eight percent, so the question is of special interest to animal breeders.)

Such research is premised on sexual identity having a strong biological basis, which would confirm what most gays and lesbians have long stressed about having no choice in their preference, and which may undermine the case for discriminatory practices such as bans on gay marriage. But such research also raises the troubling possibility that parents may one day be able to select out gay orientation in their children. As a general principle (not always medically practical), we prefer that the individual affected by the treatment should be the one who makes the decision whether to undergo it.

But that raises the question: what if this research led to treatments that allow individuals to change their own sexual orientation? (This is hypothetical to be sure, since the only treatment so far claiming to be able to do this -- "reparative therapy" -- has little to its credit and may do actual harm.) If there were a magic pill that could make you go from gay to straight, how many gays would choose it? Would there be any viable basis for preventing people from exercising that choice? We live in an interesting world, for example, in which you can act on the conviction that you were not born into the correct sex, and have that surgically corrected. Why not choose your sexual orientation as well?

1/25 update: I was delighted to see the gay-sheep story hit the New York Times, so I guess it's a respectable issue now. There was also an interesting Seattle Times piece on it from a couple of years ago, appropriately written by a science reporter. Apparently there was an earlier experiment to see if they could breed a set of disproportionately gay sheep. Needless to say, it would be amusing if the outrage only applies when breeding sheep who are less likely to be gay.

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