08 March 2017
Should parents prefer heterosexual children?
March 6, 2017
With improving technology, it is only a matter of time before parents can (largely) determine their children’s sexual orientation. When they can do so, should they refrain from having gay children?
Depending on the theory, sexual orientation focuses on desire, behavior, or self-identification. There is a continuum of orientation from exclusively heterosexual to exclusively homosexual and all points in between. In his 1994 book, The Social Organization of Sexuality, sociologist Edward Laumann found that while 2.4% of men and 1.3% of women define themselves as gay or bisexual, have same-gender partners, and express homosexual desires, many other people have mixed desires and behaviors.
There is evidence that sexual orientation has both genetic and environmental influences. Identical twins are more likely to have the same sexual orientation (if one is gay, so is the other) than fraternal twins and non-twin siblings. Still, genes account for less than 50% of the variation in sexual orientation. Thus, while there appears to be a genetic influence on whether someone is gay, it is not genetically determined. In addition, there are other factors that correlate with non-heterosexual orientation (for example, hormonal differences in utero and childhood sexual abuse and maltreatment). It is very controversial whether certain environmental effects (for example, abuse and maltreatment) influence sexual orientation at all or, if they do, their strength.
The environmental influence can also be in seen in that adolescent’s sexual patterns are surprisingly fluid. In particular, sexual desires in gay and bisexuals adolescents is more unstable than that of heterosexuals. Some studies indicate that large numbers of adolescents with same-sex attractions later become exclusively heterosexual. Even adult men have fluid orientations, University of Utah psychologist Lisa Diamond reports that 35% of gay men reported experiencing opposite-sex attractions in the preceding year and 10% reported opposite-sex behavior. Diamond earlier found that women’s sexuality was surprisingly unstable. For example, one study using Laumann’s data found that women who attended college were nine times more likely to identify as lesbians compared to those who did not.
Arizona State professor Lawrence Mayer and Johns Hopkins professor Paul McHugh point out that gay, bisexual, and transgender people have higher rates of mental health problems and social problems. They have increased rates of anxiety disorders, depression, suicide attempts, and make greater use of mental health services. They also have increased social problems such as domestic violence (victimization and perpetration) and substance abuse. The suicide attempt rate for transgender people is alarmingly high even when compared to gays and bisexuals. Note that this is an increased rate of problems for a population, many non-heterosexual people do not have any of them.
The most common explanation for this is that most, if not all, of the mental health and social problems are due to social stressors such as discrimination, prejudice, stigmatization, and hiding one’s identity. We don’t know, though, whether social stressors account for all of the additional problems.
In the future, and likely in the near future, we will have the ability to screen and, perhaps, control the genetics of our offspring. This might occur by screening sperm and egg, selective abortion, changing the in utero hormones, or changing the ways genes express themselves (epigenetics). With this ability, should parents choose heterosexual children?
Other things being equal, people prefer to have happier, healthier, and smarter children. The above problems suggest that one way to have happier and healthier children is to avoid having gay ones. Also, even if the mental health and social problems of non-straight people go away, perhaps, due to decreased hostility to gays, heterosexual parents might still want children similar to themselves. This is unsurprising. This also explains why parents usually prefer to adopt children from their own racial or ethnic group. Also, because on average heterosexuals have more children than gays and parents often want more grandchildren, they often will prefer heterosexual children.
By the same token, gay parents might want gay children, again because they are similar to themselves. Even if their children were, on average, less happy than straight children, gay parents would not be harming anyone by selecting gay children. Gay children would not be better off had they not been created and the straight children who never existed have no ground for complaint. If there is nothing wrong with being gay or having gay sex, and I don’t think there is, then it is not wrong to select gay children. Still, in the absence of knowledge about what is causing greater mental health and social problems in gays, there is reason to hesitate creating gay children.
More controversial is whether parents may cause their children to be gay.
It might be argued that it is wrong to choose to create one type of person rather than another. Seven states ban abortions performed to select sex or race (Arizona, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and South Dakota). Similarly, the World Health Organization tells governments to eliminate such abortions while at the same time endorsing a right to an abortion. 180 countries have signed on to its recommendations. However, this line of argument is confused. No one is wronged by sex- or race-selection abortion who is not also wronged by abortion in general. If the second does not wrong anyone, then neither does the first. This ban on sex selection is particularly bizarre in that the biologically normal sex ratio at birth is 2-6% more boys than girls. It is not as if there is equal or natural ratio of boys and girls that should be society’s target.
It might also be argued that selecting children based on sexual orientation will worsen gays’ and bisexuals’ social position or have fewer political allies. Even if this were true, this is not a strong enough reason to trample on women’s right to an abortion or parents’ right to control whom to create.
The days when parents can choose whether to have straight or gay children is rapidly approaching. There is nothing wrong with their choosing what they want and the law should stay out of it.