In a New York magazine piece, “The Science of Gaydar,” writer David France looks at the growing scientific evidence for innate differences between gay and straight people. France ends by gazing toward the future, and asks the question, “What if prenatal tests were able to show a predisposition to gayness?” Well, France reports, “[Northwestern University psychological professor] Michael Bailey, for one, isn’t troubled by the moral implications any more than he would oppose fetal screens for potential birth defects, though he quickly adds his personal belief that homosexuality is ‘a good’ on par with heterosexuality.”
Bailey espouses a definite Seinfeldian “not that there’s anything wrong with that” attitude toward homosexuality. In a paper he published on the subject with lawyer Aaron Greenberg in 2001, he wrote: “Because homosexuality causes no direct harm to others (other than those who take offense at it on irrational and/or inhumane grounds) and because homosexual behavior is crucial to the ability of homosexual people to enjoy their lives (as heterosexual behavior is to heterosexuals), homosexuality should not be morally condemned or proscribed.” But, Greenberg and Bailey say, it’s wrong to tell parents they can’t select for (or against) a heterosexual or homosexual predisposition in their children.
Greenberg and Bailey take a libertarian view of the matter—they believe the right of parents to make these kinds of decisions is paramount, “even assuming, as we do, that homosexuality is entirely acceptable morally.” Their point is that, “allowing parents, by means morally unproblematic in themselves, to select for heterosexuality would be morally acceptable” because “allowing parents to select their children’s sexual orientation would further parents’ freedom to raise the sort of children they wish to raise and because selection for heterosexuality may benefit parents and children and is unlikely to cause significant harm.”
….Greenberg and Bailey’s paper is quite interesting—interesting enough that, when my class of smart, thoughtful, and generally progressive Medical Humanities and Bioethics masters students discussed it with the authors earlier this year, many of the students who began in agreement with the paper ended up disagreeing with it, and vice versa. I admit I wavered, but I didn’t ultimately flip; I started with, and still have, several problems with the paper.
The first is, I suppose, a general problem I have with libertarianism: It’s selfish. And I don’t like selfish philosophies. (I guess I’m selfish that way.) Greenberg and Bailey seem to assume that the larger social effects of individual decisions like the ones they are supporting are not really a pertinent moral issue, because we should just take care of our own individual needs, the neighbors be damned.
What happens to gay strangers once we offer “selection” against more people like them is not the issue when I’m deciding whether to professionally justify or even personally use this theoretic technology—unless that happens to be what I feel like troubling myself about. Greenberg and Bailey just don’t spend much energy worrying actively (in their paper or in follow-up discussions) about what effect defending the right to use this technology could have on queer people and their rights.
Now, to be fair, they may not worry about that in part because they just disagree with me that they are effectively undermining queer people and their rights by arguing that this technology would be morally acceptable. In an email to a sex research discussion group, Bailey argued against me: “I think it is possible both to support the message that homosexual people are as good as heterosexual people and to support parents’ freedom to disagree with that message and to act on their disagreement.” But I think he’s naïve here.
Sure, it ought to be the case that defending the rights of parents to use this technology doesn’t ultimately undermine queer rights, but it seems hard to believe that in practice it won’t lead to support of the idea that one ought to try not to have a gay child—just as in practice the prenatal test for trisomy 21 (Down’s syndrome) has led to a general attitude (at least among the vast majority of my very “progressive” childbearing acquaintances) that one ought to try not to have a child with trisomy 21….
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