Posted by: Chris | July 1, 2010

Something About Nothing

Continuing our coverage of evo-devo and the gays, I want to highlight the recent inquiries into the use of prenatal treatment of steroid dexamethosone  to prevent congenital adrenal hyperplasia, a recessive autosomal disorder that causes the adrenal glands to improperly process cortisol and causes imbalances in sex hormones in-utero.  The nexus between this and our previous discussions is that, in addition to a number of other side effects, including misformed genitalia and infertility, a recent paper found a correlation between CAH and lesbianism, bisexuality, and non-gender-conforming behavior in women.  I think this is most interesting, as it is yet another data point in favor of the prenatal hormonal dysfunction proximate explanation for homosexuality and it gives some insight into the origins of female sexual orientation, which is usually avoided by researchers due to its fluidity and presumed complexities.

Much of the discussion around the still experimental use of dexamethasone to treat CAH is focused on the safety and potential late-developing complications of applying a foriegn substance during incredibly sensative  developmental phases.  However, thanks to this paper, some excitable hyperbole, and playing telephone with hyperlinks, an entirely different argument is brewing.  Andrew and friends are up in arms over the possibility that parents/scientists could want to prevent children from potentially being gay.  Andrew, always one for subtlety, even to decided to bust out the Nazi allusions from the get-go.

All this seems incredibly silly to me.  Lets put aside the fact that this is all incidental to anything that actually matters: researchers want to prevent children from suffering the severe effects of CAH like physical malformities and infertility, not “women from choosing careers over babies” and our principle qualms should be about unforeseen side effects, not designer babies.  I find myself strangely unconvinced by the arguments burnished by Sullivan and co.  We allow for prenatal treatments for all kinds of genetic deformities.  Parents go so far as aborting children with life-threatening disorders without significant moral sanction and the act of simply not aborting a child with Down’s Syndrome is sufficient for one to be a hero of the pro-life movement.* 

Homosexual fetuses at present also face an unfortunate future (though obviously not as severe as those with Down Syndrome or fatal genetic diseases).  They are likely to be tormented or at least ostrascized by peers, contemplate suicide (and act on those contemplations), and feel perpetually isolated from society.  One could argue that a benevolent parent would prefer to spare their offspring those hardships.  Perhaps more selfishly, they themselves may do not relish dealing with these complications and simply have children that they can better relate to, or would rather have grandchildren and perpetuate their genetic line.  It should also be added that the scenerio contemplated, even in the make-believe universe of Sullivan et al., is not the elimination of gay fetuses but their modification: altering their prenatal environment so that they produce sex hormones in proper quantities during development, allowing their adrenal gland to function normally and potentially avoid post-natal complications, the least among them sexual orientation irregularities.  Those who find this morally wrong see all this leading to the diminishment of the diversity of humanity and dire predictions of a Gattaca-esque future.  To me though, the latter does not follow and the former I just cannot imagine as all that necessarily regrettable.  But perhaps I am missing something, or the intense moralizing produced a knee-jerk distasteful reaction in me towards the anti-dexamethosome.  What does our would-be bioethicist think on the matter, again keeping in mind that, for the time being, this discussion is irrelevant?

*Assuming, of course, that it is her baby.  Ouroboros!



  1. I gather the question is whether this is sound:

    1. If one is likely to be less well off if one is a homosexual then it is morally obligatory (or permissible) to prevent a fetus from developing into a homosexual person if it can be done without any physical or psychological harm to the developed person.

    2. One is likely to be less well off if one is a homosexual.

    3. You can prevent a fetus from developing into a homosexual without any physical or psychological harm to the developed person.

    4. So, it is morally obligatory (or permissible) to prevent a fetus from developing into a homosexual person.


    The answer is, even granting (2) (on a certain interpretation) and (3) (on a certain interpretation), that it is not obviously sound. Two big problems with (1).

    (a) If the act of prevention harms more current or future people than it helps – e.g. by changing attitudes towards homosexuals, or by seeding Gattaca, or by foregoing an opportunity to develop a generally more humane society (which needn’t be regarded as an end-in-itself, though if it is thought intrinsically valuable then that’s another consideration against (1)) – then it ought not to be done. You explicitly discount Gattaca, while ignoring the other (more likely) possibilities. I am not sure why.

    (b) It considers the likelihood of well-off-ness, but not its magnitude. (Say the odds of being well-off if one develops trait x are very low, but if one is well-off then one is really, really well off. I could easily imagine judging the high risk to be worth the really, really high reward.) Becoming a flourishing homosexual, and, thereby, a member of a close-knit, intelligent and energetic community of very genuine folks, might be worth running the risks (higher incidence of suicide, etc.) you cite.

    I agree with you that “diminished diversity” is an ill-formed concern. The real issue that Andrew et. al. are getting at is whether it’s okay to deliberately (if not intentionally) dismantle a valuable community on the (even well-confirmed) assumption that it will create a world of more well-off individuals. They wonder whether individual well-being is the only good worth promoting, and also whether the conception of it that we tacitly employ in public debates is adequate (this last veers close to (b)-style worries).

  2. […] stupid fooferah about prenatal anti-CAH treatment supposedly eradicating lesbians than I could muster.  Though it was very humorous to see Andrew truck out the breathless hyperbole (“the final […]

  3. […] ultimately leading to a sensationalist but erroneous conclusions.  The phenomenon is sadly not a new one.  Indeed, just last month, an over-excited NASA scientist gushing about Mars dust got the […]

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