Ethics of Gay – Scientific and Ethical Criticism

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Updated: Mar 28, 2022
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“In this previously untapped field, it also received its share of both scientific and ethical criticism. Before noting the discovery’s ethical concerns, it is important to acknowledge that scientists have located several technical problems with Hamer’s study. His finding is often misinterpreted as showing that all 66 men from these 33 pairs shared the same Xq28 sequence. In fact, all he showed was that each member of the 33 concordant pairs shared his Xq28 region with his brother but not with any of the other 64 men.

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No single specific Xq28 sequence was common to all 66 men. First, a Canadian research team has been unable to duplicate the finding using a comparable experimental design. Second, Hamer confined his search to the X-chromosome on the basis of family interviews, which seems to reveal a disproportionately high number of male homosexuals on the mothers’ side of the family. This could point to evidence of a skewed or poorly designed study. Also, there is some question about whether Hamer’s results are statistically significant when they are interpreted correctly. His conclusions rest on the assumption that the rate of homosexuality in the population at large (the base rate of homosexuality) was two percent at the time that his research was conducted. If the base rate is actually four percent or higher, which most current research on homosexual populations confirms, then Hamer’s results are not statistically significant; a leading geneticist argues that even Hamer’s own data support the four percent estimate (Saey 10).

Another point of criticism is that when all the data from the previously mentioned twin studies are considered, it appears that sexual orientation is the result of a combination of both genetic and environmental influences. This combination includes their chromosomal makeup, the familial environment they grew up in, and any number of contributing social and cultural factors. Further, the combined effect of genetic and environmental influences might not simply be their sum; these factors could interact in a cooperative, synergistic manner (Byne 7). Genes themselves cannot directly specify any behaviors or psychological phenomena, but they can direct a particular pattern of RNA synthesis that specifies the amino acid sequence of a protein that may influence behavior. This removes some of the concreteness of the idea of a “gay gene,” because no research has conclusively proven that the prevalence of the Xq28 gene has a cause-and-effect relationship with homosexuality.

Research on the gay gene is thought to be ethically concerning for several reasons. In the following sections I will describe the common ethical arguments of those who disagree with the continuation of genetic research of sexual orientation. A critical point to remember when discussing research of this nature is that even in our contemporary society that seems to be consistently evolving in its acceptance and understanding of underrepresented individuals, members of LGBT communities are still subject to widespread discrimination and social censorship. Of primary concern to those opposed to this research is the gruesome history of the practical use of such research. Many homosexual people have been forced to undergo “”treatments”” to change their sexual orientation, while others have “”chosen”” to undergo them in order to escape societal homophobia. Too often, scientifically questionable “”therapeutic”” approaches destroyed the lives of perfectly healthy people. “”Conversion therapies”” have included electroshock treatment, hormone therapy, brain surgery, and genital mutilation (Byne 8). There is substantial concern about the negative ramifications of biological research on sexual orientation, especially in homophobic societies. German scholars have warned fellow researchers of the potential for abuse of such research, and others have called for research of this nature to stop entirely to prevent the possibility of homophobic societies abusing the results. The history of Nazi eugenics is not lost on modern Germany, and it is a real fear that attempts to claim a genetic origin of homosexuality will lead to attempts to eliminate homosexuality through genetic “therapy,” selective destruction of fetuses that carry “gay genes,” or through the sterilization of gay adults (LeVay, Queer Science 171). The possibility of this research falling into the wrong hands should be reason enough to head the warnings of the German scholars.

Another ethical concern of conducting genetic research on sexual orientation is researchers in this field conducting their work within homophobic frameworks. For example, in his publications, German obstetrician Günter Dörner describes homosexuality as a “”dysfunction”” or “”disease”” based on “”abnormal brain development.””(Byne 8). He claims that it can be prevented by “”optimizing”” natural conditions or by “”correcting abnormal hormonal concentrations prenatally.” This is very dangerous rhetoric for the gay community, and research of this nature that is informed by homophobia will likely result in biased accounts of human sexual preferences. Additionally, it is likely to perpetuate and strengthen the homophobic attitudes on which the research was based. While one scientist with homophobic intent does not speak for everyone in the field, it is important to realize the damage that could be done to human lives if even a small percentage of researchers and medical professionals had the ability to carry out procedures fundamentally rooted in homophobia.

The question of using “gay gene” research for harmful, homophobic purposes often arises when considering the possibility of predicting sexual orientation in utero. The continued development of research on the “gay gene” and the Xq28 region of the X chromosome could lead to the creation of tests that claim to detect genes or hormonal levels that predispose for homosexuality. Developments like this which would predict sexual orientation in utero could be dangerous in homophonic societies, where they would likely be received favorably. If prospective parents believe they are able to predict the sexual orientation of a fetus by using a prenatal screening technique, it is possible that they would choose to abort a fetus that seemed to be “”homosexually predisposed”” (Byne 10). In many countries, the preference for male versus female offspring leads to the abortion of female fetuses, and this preference is clearly connected to sexism operating at a societal level. In such instances, science is undermined to serve the interests of discriminatory societies. Thus, discrimination can be institutionalized through genetic screening techniques.

Even if, in the worst-case scenario, a procedure was to take place in which a parent was able to genetically ensure their child’s sexuality by altering their genes, actually proving that the procedure worked would be nearly impossible for several reasons. First, since most children turn out to be heterosexual without the use of a preventative procedure, parents who make use of it will believe that the procedure has worked, even though the procedure has done nothing. Additionally, many people take a long time to realize and accept their sexual orientation. Parents who made use of such a procedure might think that it had been successful, but only because their child had not yet figured out her or his sexual orientation (Pinker 2). Similarly, because some gay people hide their sexual orientation, parents may believe their attempt at selecting their child’s sexual orientation has worked, when in fact it has not. Finally, if a gay person knows that his or her parents were so afraid of having a gay child that they used a procedure of that nature on then, it would surely increase the likelihood that the person would hide his or her sexual orientation from them. For these reasons, such a procedure is likely to appear to work even if it does not (Byne 9).

In an attempt to counter the arguments made about the issues with the search for the “gay gene,” neuroscientist Simon LeVay claims that psychological and sociological research into the origin of homosexuality has been historically more damaging to the homosexual community than genetic research on sexual orientation. In response to the notion that research of this nature could all into the “wrong hands” and produce a eugenics-inspired catastrophe, LeVay argues that the Nazis did not persecute gay men because they believed that homosexuality was biologically inherited, but rather because it was a “learned behavior, spread by seduction.” (Queer Science 171). Historically, efforts to ostracize gay people due to other psychological and biological differences (not including genetics) have had more negative implications than genetic study. (172).

LeVay believes that the biological exploration of homosexuality is imperative because throughout history, people have produced extensive psychological, nonbiological explanations as to why gay people are gay, and these explorations usually take the form of “what went wrong in the lives of gay people?” (LeVay, Gay, Straight 27). For example, Freud theorized that male homosexuality is caused when young boys fail to enter the oedipal phase, which occurs around the age of three. During the oedipal phase, the young boy transitions from the previous “phallus-centered homosexual phase” to a phase in which he remains sexually fixated on his mother for two to three years. If a boy fails to enter the oedipal phase and remains in the homosexual phase, the process becomes disrupted, leading to homosexuality that lasts into adulthood. Alternately, the boy may enter and fail to exit the oedipal phase, resulting in a life-long subconscious emulation of his mother, in which he enters sexual relationships with men in order to reestablish oedipal bonds, but with the roles reversed. Theories like this posed by Freud (and later Carl Jung) of young boys being trapped in an adolescent period of under-development which resulted in homosexuality were not rooted in evidence, and they were born from Freud’s minimal encounters with gay men who were seeking therapy for family-related trauma. To quote LeVay, “[it is] like the theory that unidentified flying objects are alien spacecraft: They could be – but why believe that theory when there’s no evidence to support it and more mundane explanations exist?” (Gay, Straight 33). Back then, society needed the biological understanding and explanation of homosexuality so that the unsubstantiated musings of Freud and his psychoanalyst peers would not be perceived as absolute truth.

Along a similar vein, behavioral studies and surveys throughout the 1960’s and 70’s attempted to cite early sexual experiences, particularly molestation, as a key factor in the formulation of a homosexual person. Again, these studies were ultimately refuted, and it was noted that adolescents who were molested were not more likely to have homosexual tendencies than those who were not molested. Pointing exclusively to social or cultural factors when discussing sexuality inevitably corresponds with an element of choice. Without a biological factor present to inform us that a trait (homosexuality) is fundamental to our nature and human genome, people can and will continue to claim that homosexuality resulted from a flaw in one’s development. A refusal to acknowledge biological, scientific evidence of differences between heterosexual and homosexual people will encourage the continuation of homophobic ideas of choice, lack of proper development, and the possibility of “correction.”

However, those who disagree with researching the genetics of sexual orientation may find flaws in LeVay’s line of reasoning. Pertaining to the idea that the Nazis did not consider homosexuality to be “innate or a sign of degeneracy, but rather…that homosexuality was spread by seduction” (Byne 11), the historical accuracy of this statement is called into question. In fact, history indicates that the Nazis were as supportive of biological and genetic research as they were of any other types of research designed to eliminate homosexuality. Hormonal experiments conducted at Buchenwald by Dr. Carl Værnet demonstrated this – here, he inserted metal tubes into the groin area of homosexual male prisoners that would gradually release testosterone, as homosexuality was thought to be the result of excessive estrogen. Several of the men died quickly following the procedure from infections. (LeVay and Valente 52). This early dabbling in hormone “treatment” in an attempt to cure homosexuality demonstrates that Nazis believed in (or at least suspected) a biological foundation to homosexuality, beyond a “learned behavior spread by seduction” (LeVay, Queer Science 171). Additionally, stating that the psychological and sociological research of sexual orientation is problematic does not effectively legitimize the biological alternative. In fact, it may provide further reason to question the entire enterprise of sexual orientation research (Byne 13).

A primary argument from advocates for the continued genetic research of sexual orientation is that by establishing a genetic basis for homosexuality, a case will be made for gay rights. If genetic research demonstrates that gay people do not choose their sexuality, then they should not be punished or discriminated against for it. However, opponents of this research argue that we should hesitate to embrace arguments that attempt to legitimize homosexuality by denying that there is any choice in sexual preference because the implicit premise of these arguments is that if there was a choice, gay people would be at fault (Byne 9). Another United States-centric version of this argument is that if sexuality could be established as “immutable” and fundamental to our genetic makeup, then, according to the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, gay people would have valid, legal rights against discrimination. Unfortunately, this argument is almost entirely irrelevant outside of the U.S. Research produced in the U.S. is not confined to this country, and there would be no way of preventing this research from reaching countries that lack the U.S.’s anti-discrimination protection and would presumably use the research for homophobic purposes. (Pinker 3). Gay acts are currently criminalized in 72 countries, and any kind of ethical restrictions that the U.S. may put on genetic research of homosexuality would be effectively void in a different country. This further demonstrates the unethical nature of genetic research of sexual orientation.”

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Ethics of Gay - Scientific and Ethical Criticism. (2021, May 24). Retrieved from