Saturday, June 29, 2013

Curable Birth Defects

Many conditions that cause infant deafness are now curable through technology. For deaf parents of deaf children this can present a quandry. If they cure their child's deafness, they will remove her from their culture and possibly from their language. Writing in Slate, Mark Joseph Stern reports that in one case at least, scientists have a persuasive circumstantial case for the biological origins of male homosexuality.

Some of the strongest current evidence that some people are born gay is based on a phenomenon called the fraternal birth order effect. Several peer-reviewed studies have shown that men with older biological brothers are likelier to be gay than men with older sisters or no older siblings. The likelihood of being gay increases by about 33 percent with each additional older brother. From these statistics, researchers calculate that about 15 to 30 percent of gay men have the fraternal birth order effect to thank for their homosexuality.

There is also a speculative theory as to why this should be the case: the notion that women who have had sons develop an increasing immune response to some of the factors that promote development of the "normal" male brain. If this theory should be confirmed, it suggests that at least some male homosexuality might be a preventable birth "defect." Given the fairly strong evidence that homosexuality is always (or almost always) biological, it also suggests that it might also be preventable or at least avoidable. These notions undercut the religious notion that homosexuality is a lifestyle choice, or a moral aberration, but they reinforce the notion that it is a biological aberration.

It seems likely that most parents, even proud members of PFLAG, would prefer that their children not be born homosexual, and, given the chance, would take measures to suppress the hypothesized immune reactions that lead to the birth order effect. For Mr. Stern, foreseeing the eventual end of his community, this is tragic.

We might not yet understand the exact biological mechanisms underlying sexual orientation, but we will one day soon. And if, at that point, homosexuality is seen as a disorder, the next step will be a search for a cure. That would be a tragedy—for society and for science. There’s nothing wrong with being gay: You know it; I know it; the Supreme Court knows it. But so long as large swaths of the country believe otherwise—places where homophobic families still ostracize their gay sons and brothers—any research into its biological origins is fraught with peril for the cause of gay rights.

I sympathize with his feelings, but vehemently reject his conclusion that we need to stop studying biology and biological causation.