The gay baby

Science may soon allow you to predict - and even alter - the sexual orientation of your unborn child. If that happens, no matter what you believe about gay rights or abortion, life will never be the same.

By TYLER GRAY, reprinted from Radar Online
Published March 18, 2007

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.

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. Lately some of the more notable research on the subject has focused on animals - namely, sheep. As it turns out, one in 10 rams prefers the company of other rams, according to research done at Oregon Health and State University. "This particular study, along with others, strongly suggests that sexual preference is biologically determined in animals, and possibly in humans," said the lead author, Charles E. Roselli, professor of physiology and pharmacology there.

Misinterpretations of his work - that he was seeking to find ways to change gay animals to straight - flashed around the blogosphere after the issue gained prominence at the hands of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and a story appeared in London's Sunday Times. The issue blew again up again last week when the Rev. R. Albert Mohler Jr., the president of the leading Southern Baptist seminary, suggested on his Web site that a biological basis for homosexuality may be demonstrated and that treatment to change it would be justified by the Bible (www.AlbertMohler.com).

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!

Dueling agendas

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 would 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 a 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 prochoice 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.

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.

"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.

Morally unacceptable

Not that people haven't tried to stop it. In October 2002, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, a leading U.K.-based medical science think tank, released a 258-page report called Genetics and Human Behavior: The Ethical Context. In it, the council warned of dire implications of widespread testing and called for a ban on tests to determine behavioral traits such as intelligence, sexual orientation and personality in unborn babies. "We take the view that the use of selective termination ... to abort the fetus on the basis of information about behavioral traits in the normal range is morally unacceptable," the report concluded.

And at a congressional hearing last July, representatives from the Genetics and Public Policy Center at Johns Hopkins blasted the government's laissez-faire response to this new wave of genetic testing and called for immediate action. "I don't think there is awareness of the degree to which the government does not oversee genetic testing," center spokeswoman Gail Javitt says.

Know the code

The role of DNA in determining sexual orientation has been coming into focus since 1979. That's when a landmark study conducted at the University of Minnesota found that identical twins who had been separated at birth and raised apart were likely to share a wide range of personality traits not often attributed to genetics. Building on those findings, in 1991 Michael Bailey and Richard Pillard found that identical twins were much more likely to both be homosexual than were fraternal twins or non-twin or adopted brothers. Their discovery - as well as the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003 - informed a growing scientific consensus that homosexuality was at least partly biological.

No one has come closer to finding specific genetic markers for it than Dean H. Hamer, Ph.D., chief of the Section on Gene Structure and Regulation in the Laboratory of Biochemistry of the National Cancer Institute. Hamer is, as Discover magazine put it in 1997, the nation's premier "big gene hunter."

In 1996, Hamer was able to connect neurotic behavior in humans to the gene responsible for our processing of serotonin, a brain chemical that affects impulsiveness and anxiety. Clearly not averse to controversy, in 2004 Hamer published The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired into Our Genes , in which he traced feelings of spiritual transcendence to a single gene called VMAT2. Needless to say, religious fundamentalists did not rejoice.

But none of his previous work generated as much attention - or outrage - as his 1993 discovery of the "gay gene." Working with noted British neuroscientist Simon LeVay (who went on to find differences in the brains of gay and straight men), Hamer made his groundbreaking discovery by accident. He had started out looking for the genetic root of Kaposi's sarcoma, an otherwise rare cancer that kills many AIDS patients. His cancer search was unsuccessful, but as Hamer was examining sets of genes in 40 pairs of homosexual brothers, he found five markers that revealed the Xq28 chromosome region as the site of the genetic code for homosexuality.

Since he published his report in the July 1993 issue of Science, Hamer has faced a barrage of criticism. N.E. Whitehead, co-author of My Genes Made Me Do It!, blasted Hamer for restricting his sample to gay men, arguing that the results might have been different if he'd included a control group drawn from the general population. Religious groups protested, insisting heterosexuality is the biological norm, and deviance from that norm is learned, not inherited. Even many psychologists were skeptical. But so far, no one has offered convincing evidence to refute his claims.

Rainbow's end?

Hamer's findings hold out the ethically dubious promise that parents who are no friends of Dorothy may one day be able to discard suspiciously swishy embryos. By examining a string of genes in the Xq28 region, Hamer says he can predict with unprecedented accuracy whether a child is likely to be gay. It's certainly not foolproof, but access to such information would no doubt inspire many parents to abort an embryo whose results suggested a high probability of homosexuality.

Though he is gay himself, Hamer seems curiously unconcerned about the potential implications of his research. "People are often afraid that finding (a gay gene) will lead people to rethink homosexuality as a disease," he says. He doesn't share that fear, and argues that few people will make life-and-death decisions about their unborn babies based on single traits.

But as it turns out, they already are. A survey of 415 genetic labs conducted by the Genetics and Public Policy Center found that 42 percent of them had used genetic testing to help parents select the gender of their children. Labs are also regularly tossing embryos with genetic predispositions to colon cancer or Alzheimer's. While infants born with these genes are far from certain to come down with these diseases, many prospective parents opt to play it safe.

Gay rights advocates worry that genetic testing puts homosexuality on the same level as such diseases, pointing it down the road to the same goal: elimination. Even if it were possible to genetically erase homosexuality, however, doing so would come at a social price. Glenn Wilson, a reader in personality at the Institute of Psychiatry in London and coauthor of Born Gay: The Psychobiology of Sex Orientation, argues that the same genes that influence homosexuality are crucial to the expression of valued behavioral traits, such as verbal fluency and mastery of spatial relationships. (Translation: It's not entirely accidental that your Uncle Jimmy has a knack for show tunes and interior design.)

"If you did ever succeed in wiping out homosexual orientation, you would also remove many positive traits that are good for humanity as a whole and also good for individuals," Wilson adds. Thus, eradicating homosexuality, even if it could be done without the destruction of a single organism, "would be ethically indefensible."

Dr. Jamie Grifo is the program director for New York University's Reproductive Endocrinology Division and professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at NYU medical school. An early proponent of genetic research, he has performed preimplantation genetic diagnostic procedures for a decade and says he has no qualms about helping parents have babies with certain traits. "Personally, I believe that people should be allowed to make their own decisions. I believe in the right of the individual. They're not going to harm the species."

And, if they are, it's probably too late to do anything about it with the gene genie already out of the bottle. "We're at the advent of a brave new world here," says Martin Munzer, president and CEO of CyGene, which markets some genetic tests. "We don't know where it's going to go, but there's no stopping it now."

- This piece originally appeared in March/April issue of national pop culture magazine Radar. Read today's top stories from Radar Online.