It’s a day in the not-too-distant future. A woman, three months pregnant, sits anxiously in her obstetrician’s office pondering the possibility of giving birth to a gay kid.
Perhaps, she thinks, she shouldn’t have agreed to the test in the first place. Maybe it would’ve been better not to know, to have left everything to fate. And what difference did it make, really? Like most of her friends, the woman, though moderately religious, considers herself an open-minded cosmopolitan with a Seinfeld-ian attitude toward homosexuality: “not that there’s anything wrong with that!”
At least that’s how she feels about other people’s gay children. But this is her baby, her first and perhaps only one. And however much she and her husband try to reconcile themselves to the idea, they know the world at large will always remain a uniquely difficult place for a boy who likes other boys.
Without resolving this conflict, she consents to an analysis of her amniotic fluid sample, mentally grouping it with the tests already performed to look for markers of Huntington’s disease and Down syndrome—things to be ruled out. Only this time, the results have come back positive.
And now she has a choice to make. A hormone patch, applied to her belly, could redirect her child’s genetic destiny, reversing the sexual orientation inscribed in his chromosomes. There would be one fewer homosexual in the world—if that’s what she wants.
Your Favorite Genes
It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds. Already, some scientists claim they can potentially identify fetuses hardwired for homosexuality, and the gap between recognition and intervention is quickly narrowing. Some of the more notable research on the subject has focused on animals—namely, sheep. Last December, researchers at two Oregon universities concluded a three-year study on sheep sexuality in which they studied the effects of hormones on rams who prefer rams. Though attempts to alter the sexual preference of sheep failed, the mere idea was enough to raise the ire of gay rights advocates, notably tennis player Martina Navratilova, who called the study “homophobic and cruel” and said it deprived the sheep of their “right” to be gay. In an article on the study in London’s Sunday Times, experts predicted that within a decade, similar patches would allow parents to change fetuses’ sexual orientation.
Though such patches may never be effective (the Times has since retracted the story), there’s little doubt that expectant parents will soon be able to screen their embryos and choose one with the “correct” sexual preference. Even now, doctors are testing for a number of attributes using a procedure called Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD), which involves growing embryos in petri dishes and testing their DNA before implanting them in the uterus. PGD has until recently been used exclusively to check for more than 1,300 chromosomal disorders, but traits such as eye color, height, and hair color can also easily be predicted by DNA analysis. In many cases, they’re marked by a single gene.
Soon, as geneticists map the location of the genes responsible for more complex behaviors and pinpoint, once and for all, those that help determine homosexuality, such traits, too, will factor into would-be parents’ decisions to implant an embryo and carry it to term—or to toss it and all of its undesirable qualities in the trash.
In a culture that encourages us to customize everything from our Nikes to our venti skinny lattes, perhaps it is only a matter of time before baby-making becomes just another consumer transaction. Already have a girl? Make this one a boy! Want to impress your boho friends? Make a real statement with lesbian twins!
Of course, the introduction of choice into a realm that has always been governed by chance promises to create a new galaxy of ethical and political problems. In the past 30 years, no two issues have been more polarizing—or more politicized—than abortion and gay rights. The arrival of “gay gene” testing will force activists on all sides to re-examine long-held pieties.
Conservatives opposed to both abortion and homosexuality will have to ask themselves whether the public shame of having a gay child outweighs the private sin of terminating a pregnancy (assuming the stigma on homosexuality survives the scientific refutation of the Right’s treasured belief that it’s a “lifestyle choice”). Pro-choice activists won’t be spared, either. Will liberal moms who love their hairdressers be as tolerant when faced with the prospect of raising a little stylist of their own? And exactly how pro-choice will liberal abortion-rights activists be when thousands of potential parents are choosing to filter homosexuality right out of the gene pool?
Then there’s the question of whether some gay parents will use genetic testing or hormonal treatments to intentionally produce gay offspring. It’s hard to imagine the conservative culture warriors (who accused PBS of using a cartoon bunny to infect young minds with the gay agenda) sitting idly by as actual gays—even just a handful of them—use science to pass their sexuality on to the next generation. Will the surrogate mom replace the pervy Boy Scout leader as the anti-gay bugbear of choice?
Within a generation—sooner if genetic testing companies have their way—such questions will no longer be hypothetical. Even now, with a finger prick and a few keystrokes, expectant parents are ordering detailed genetic information on their unborn children, though caveat emptor is the rule in the marketplace.
A British study published in 2000, for example, identified a string of genes that affect an individual’s stamina and exercise efficiency. Soon after, a company called CyGene rolled out a test that purports to measure athletic ability. Its claims are tenuous, but this hasn’t stopped the company from selling hundreds of tests. What some critics have blasted as sketchy science, CyGene calls “an extremely unique way of interpreting the information out there.”
Another firm, Acu-Gen Biolab Inc., is marketing a fetal DNA test that it claims predicts the gender of a baby just six weeks after conception. Apparently there are a few kinks to work out; the company faces a class-action suit filed by 40 individuals who received inaccurate information. Still other Web-based firms offer prospective parents DNA-based drug-reaction testing, nutritional genetic testing, diet consultation, and more.
“I think that people are going to be able to test for intelligence, appearance, personality, and, let’s face it, they’re going to select their babies to have characteristics that they consider to be superior,” says Howard Coleman, CEO of Genelex, a Seattle-based biotech outfit. “Did you see Gattaca? The ability to do that kind of testing is definitely coming.”