Bioethics Forum Essay

Liberty Should Win: We May Choose Our Children’s Sexual Orientation

Gay marriage is morally unacceptable – here’s why: Supporters of gay marriage undermine the rights of homosexuals because they provoke increased homophobic reactions and political mobilization in an already homophobic society. Sure, gay marriages in themselves harm no one and homophobic reactions to them are irrational, but it’s naïve to think that the revulsion many people feel when confronted with the possibility of gay marriages won’t make things worse for homosexual people generally.

Now some might argue that people should have the right to marry anyone they wish to, but that’s based on a selfish philosophy – strictly about what’s good for the individual, and the greater good be damned. People ought to accept gay marriages but it’s hard to believe they will. Given this, those who support gay marriage are actually supporting (apparently unwittingly in some cases) bigotry.

The response of our colleague, Alice Dreger, to our parental selection article is written with her usual charm and passion. It is also, unfortunately, inadequate and inaccurate in several ways. The central issue here is the balancing of a proposed parental right against a putative social harm that the exercise of that right might cause. Building a convincing case against approving the exercise of that right would involve two steps: establishing that the social harm is likely to occur if the right were exercised, and establishing that the expected harm would be severe enough to justify curtailing the right. Dreger is unconvincing in her attempt to perform step one and utterly ignores step two.

Characterizing parental rights as “selfish,” as Dreger does, is unproductive and inconclusive. All individual rights are, by definition, about the individual and are enforceable to one degree or another against society’s competing interests. That’s the whole point of their existence. Dreger then continues: “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.” This is a grossly inaccurate characterization of our position, entirely unsupportable by anything we have written. In fact, in our article we discuss and analyze at some length several possible social harms arising out of parental selection. Dreger may disagree with the conclusions we reach after analyzing those possible harms, but to characterize our position as “the neighbors be damned” is mistaken and unfair. We are also puzzled by Dreger’s remarks that our attitude toward homosexuality is “Seinfeldian” when she herself acknowledges that we are “fully comfortable with and supportive of queer people.”

In any case, the social harm Dreger predicts is that the availability of a means to avoid having a homosexual child will lead some people to believe that one should avoid gay children. This has happened, she claims, with Down Syndrome (among her acquaintances, anyway). How many might take this view about gay children she does not say and presumably cannot know. If it happens, she goes on to say, those people will view homosexual people more negatively and, presumably, treat homosexual people worse, than they otherwise would.

We know of no reason to believe that the number of people who already believe one should avoid or wish not to have a gay child would be increased by our knowing how to do it, nor does Dreger offer one. It’s true that we didn’t “bother” to look at the prenatal testing and disability rights literature, and that we aren’t familiar with “the social meaning of prenatal testing for conditions that typically become identities” or with the “social model of disability.” We don’t even know what those words mean. And we don’t believe that homosexuality would typically be viewed as a disability in anything like the way Down Syndrome is. But since Dreger is obviously familiar with the disability literature, perhaps rather than just mentioning it and its abstractions of social meaning and modeling, she could provide us with a concrete explanation of its relevance to sexual orientation and of the actual events she believes will lead from (a) the acceptance of parental selection, to (b) a significant increase in the number of people who think gay children ought not to be had, to (c) worse lives for actual homosexual people.

Even if that harm does materialize, it must be weighed against the rights of parents (taken for granted in a multitude of other contexts) to have the sorts of children they wish to have. If the harm is relatively mild or not very widespread, we might reasonably conclude that it is an acceptable price to pay for not curtailing parental freedom. Dreger doesn’t even take a shot at this one. Her position here is this: “Could we really imagine that offering such a test would have no negative impact on how an already-homophobic culture views people who are gay (and their parents, for that matter)? In that sense, can we really imagine that supporting parents’ right to choose against homosexuality supports the message that gay people are as good as straight people?” But of course the question isn’t whether parental selection will have “no” negative impact or whether it supports gay equality. The question is: Will selection cause enough harm to outweigh parents’ interests in having the sort of children they wish to have? For reasons stated in our article, we conclude that the expected harms of parental selection are unlikely to outweigh the benefits. Dreger offers no analysis at all of this crucial question.

Finally, as we hope was illustrated by our gay marriage example (just an example, of course, and definitely not our actual position on gay marriage), we believe that Dreger is on dangerous and tricky ground when she argues that the (predicted) irrational and morally indefensible reactions of those who are homophobic should determine the moral acceptability of an action. Certainly, we must, to some significant degree, accept the world as it is and make moral judgments accordingly. But to judge an action to be morally unacceptable solely because doing it will provoke evil reactions in bad people, without even considering the expected magnitude of the harm and the possible benefits of the action, doesn’t seem likely to lead to a consistent, fair and humane moral system, which we take to be Dreger’s ultimate goal, as it is ours.

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