Genetics will not be used to abort straights OR gays

Not because of ethics, necessarily, but because of science.

Genetics is complicated. This is a concept that all non-scientists, regardless of political leaning, seem to have a hard time grasping. I’ve heard liberals who are worried that advances in genomics will result in a simple prenatal test, which bigots would gobble up to make sure they’re not growing the next Ricky Martin or Ellen DeGeneres. This always seemed like a silly fear, since people from the religious right also tend to be not so fond of abortion.

But it’s not just the liberals. Now World Net Daily is worried gays are going to abort straight babies:

If two homosexual men want to use in vitro fertilization to conceive a baby and then use genetics technology to ensure the baby is also “gay,” while disposing of any “straight” embryos, would the law have any ethical problems with that? John A. Robertson of the University of Texas Law School is the chair of the Ethics Committee of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine and an advocate of what his book “Children of Choice” calls “procreative liberty.” In a paper for the Washington, D.C., think tank Brookings Institution, Robertson presents a futuristic scenario where advancing science and society’s evolving morality could create a once only dreamed-of ethical dilemma:

“Larry, a pediatrician, and David, a wills lawyer, meet in their late 20s, fall in love, and marry on June 15, 2025, in Indianapolis,” Robertson writes. “By 2030, they are well-enough established in their careers to think about having their own child. Larry’s 24-year-old sister Marge has agreed to donate her eggs, and David will provide the sperm, so that each partner will have a genetic connection with the child. … In the process, Larry and David come to realize that they would prefer to have a male child that shares their sexual orientation.” He continues, “The clinic doctors are experts in embryo screening and alteration, but cannot guarantee that the resulting embryos will in fact turn out to be homosexual. To increase the certainty, they will insert additional ‘gay gene’ sequences in the embryos.”

Of course gays, what with their agenda and all, are going to engineer some gaybies! So much more reasonable. Heterosexuals are doomed.

I don’t think you should chose an embryo based on sexual orientation, but let’s put ethics aside for a moment and talk about the science. The ethics debate is irrelevant because the “science” they discuss is ludicrous. As someone who’s studying the “mushrooming” field of genomics, let me try to explain.

Homosexuality almost certainly has a genetic component (1) and has potentially been associated with certain areas of the human genome (2). However, “genetic component” does not equal “gene.” Genetics is way more complicated than what you learned back in middle school – it’s not just single genes with dominant and recessive alleles. You can have multiple genes affecting the same trait, numerous alleles per gene, and interactions between certain combinations of certain alleles between different genes.

If you do find a single mutation that’s associated with homosexuality, it’s likely to be very very rare in humans. If it was more common, we would have identified it a long time ago using traditional genetic tools. Such a mutation would be able to explain just a small percentage of homosexuality. I’m sure by now you’ve heard of studies in the news that have claimed to find a genetic component to heart disease, or schizophrenia, or something. If you read the fine print, it usually only explains something like 3% of the disease. Not really predictive enough to start aborting the breeders.

If this sounds complicated already, it’s just the tip of the iceberg. You can also have mutations in regulatory regions of genes. These aren’t DNA sequences that code for the actual protein, but rather regulate things like how often or in what tissue that protein is made. You can also have copy number variants (CNVs), where some people have extra (or less) copies of a certain gene.

Thanks to massive advances in technology, we can study stuff like mutations, regulatory regions, and CNVs pretty well now… but they’re still not the full story. Often times a single “hit” – one mutation in a gene, or one big deletion in a chromosome – isn’t enough to actually cause a trait. This is especially true when dealing with neurological traits like autism or learning disabilities, and may be implicated in a behavioral trait like homosexuality. Often times you need multiple mutations or deletions – or a combination of both – until you actually show the trait in question.

But it’s still even more complicated than that. It’s not as easy as saying Mutation A + Deletion 2 = FABULOUS! Both of these events are extremely rare, and there are likely thousands and thousands of different combinations of “lesions” (messed up DNA) that could cause a trait. So even if you sequenced a baby’s full genome, you’d have no idea what all the de novo (new) mutations and deletions would do, because they’ve likely never been seen in that combination before.

And all of this isn’t even taking into account epigenetics (which can further regulate DNA, and can even differ between twins), and environmental factors (which can range from hormones you’re exposed to in the womb, to listening to too many show tunes as a small child).

So the odds of Teh Gay being boiled down to a simple test, or a simple gene you can use to infect the population? Basically zero.

Genetics is complicated, and I don’t expect everyone to be able to understand it in depth. Even as a first year PhD student, I tried my best to write the above paragraphs jargon free and without unnecessary detail. But at the very least, admit that it’s complicated and you have no real idea how it works instead of concocting conspiracy theories.

Though I have to admit, it’s amusing that these are the same type of people who claim that simply knowing gays exist, or worse, allowing them to be parents is enough to turn someone gay. Which is it, nature or nurture? Oh right, whatever currently fuels your paranoid hate speech the most.

But you know, maybe the totally wacked out religious types would be content aborting fetuses if they even had a 5% higher chance of being gay. In which case, I’d like to point them to a study that showed each older brother a man has increases his probability of being homosexual by 28% to 48% (3). If they really want to avoid bringing gay men into the world, stop giving birth to sons. And if you’re not willing to rely on abortion, only have one child.

A win-win situation, if I do say so myself.

1. Bailey JM and Pillard RC (1991). A genetic study of male sexual orientation. Archives of General Psychiatry, 48:1089-1096.
2. Mustanski BS, et al. (2005) A genomewide scan of male sexual orientation. Human Genetics, 116(4):272-8.
3. Blanchard R (1997) Birth order and sibling sex ratio in homosexual versus heterosexual males and females. Annual Review of Sexual Research, 8:27-67.


  1. April says

    Funny how this story about the *gasp* brave new world of *oh noes!* designer babbys winds up with the STRAIGHTS being selected against. It’s almost as though they fear their audience might find aborting queers less…horrifying.

  2. Kwbach says

    WND can’t be taken seriously. I once had some issues with an article they wrote about South Park being the cause for delinquency in children, and commented by email. The author himself responded. We went back and forth for several emails, with him eventually arguing that the scatological humor used in the show was evidence that Stone and Parker were colluding with demons to recruit children to the side of evil. Then he told me that *I* was the nut for not believing in demons.

  3. Valhar2000 says

    I’d say we should take WND seriously. Not because they are anything less than completely insane, but because they have influence over a lot of people who vote and own guns.

  4. elronxenu says

    I agree, genetics is fantastically complicated. But this is science; it converges on answers.I think we can postulate that science will eventually converge on a set of alleles and specific characteristics of the intrauterine environment to increase or decrease the chance of the resulting baby growing up homosexual.Now if this happens in a thousand years we can discount the problem entirely for our generation and hope that our descendants have matured as a species sufficiently to make wise choices about how we use our knowledge.On the other hand, if it happens in the next couple hundred years then I am sure it will be exploited in ways undesirable. We still live in a woo-soaked world where female foetuses are aborted due to their sex and gays are constantly if not systematically oppressed.

  5. says

    Wait, so real science isn’t like on television? Shit, there goes everything I thought I knew.That aside I do take a bit of umbrage at the circle jerk comment (for obvious reasons). I freely admit that philosophy does have its share of circle jerk-ness, but then so does any discipline. Sometimes, though, these kind of thought exercises aren’t meant to examine some abstract point that’s only relevant to philosophers. I’ve been known to use mining hydrocarbons on Titan as an example. We can’t currently do this, and while with our current understanding it might be more possible than detecting a fetus’ sexual orientation so we can abort the “bad” ones, it isn’t really about Titan at all. Like good science fiction, or any good fiction at all, really, sometimes using the thought exercise can give people a bit of distance so that they might consider a relevant problem they otherwise wouldn’t have thought of.I’m not opposed to tackling the issue directly, but sometimes you do have to sneak through the defenses in order to get people to engage with something.That aside I did enjoy the post.

  6. JediPsychologist says

    I generally read your blog so I can keep up on all the important things that stupid people are doing lately. But this was seriously heartbreaking. I wanted to stop reading. But I didn’t, and your rebuttal was… healing. I did my bachelor’s degree in behavioral psychology and I’m in the middle of my master’s degree in cellular biology – and I’m actually currently taking my genetics elective right now. So, I’ve studied both the nurture and the nature side of things in decent enough detail to really, really really want to pull my hair out when I read this kind of crap (their stupid anti-gay theories, not your rebuttal.) Actually, your jargon-free explanation was EXACTLY at my current level of understanding. And you just kept gaining steam. Seriously, I wanted to go grab some pom-poms while reading this so I could cheer you on. And then, of course, you cited your sources. Because awesome. Anyway. I just wanted to say thank you for having the patience, wherewithal and expertise to patiently knock down the terrifying arguments and bullshit that make me want to curl up in the fetal position and stop reading the news forever. It’s encouraging and informative, but more importantly, it’s downright healing. So thank you.

  7. Strad27 says

    Why Jen- I am surprised at your vitriol and narrowmindedness toward philosophy. I shall be certain to remember your thoughts on the subject the next time I read Dennet or Harris, and I will relish the “circle jerk” that ensues while I contemplate their arguments.

  8. says

    The circle jerk comment was sort of an inside joke, but since all the philosophers here are taking it too seriously (hence kind of proving my point), I deleted it. No need to derail the conversation about something ultimately unrelated.Still don’t like philosophy, though :P

  9. says

    I certainly don’t think you should have deleted the comment. As I said, there is an element of circle jerking to the work of some philosophers. I frequently make fun of them for it myself. The only thing I wanted to point out is that sometimes thought exercises do have a point other than “I really need to sound like I’m saying something deep so I can get tenure.”

  10. says

    Privilege groups (or members thereof) making out that they’re the ones suffering persecution is nothing new; this is just another manifestation of men complaining that women get all the perks nowadays.In terms of the ethics question on selecting or modifying embryos, I don’t know. If you’ve got plenty of them, as in IVF, but they really are just embryos, then who cares, to be honest. Why is it better to select on the basis of tissue typing or absence of disease than, say, intelligence, eye colour or orientation? Throw tissue typing out of the mix, and it becomes acceptable to select for the benefit of the potential child, if absence of disease is acceptable; would that also cover intelligence, if we hypothesise that greater intelligence is good for a person? Could you then extend the argument to sexuality by noting the life is slightly easier for straight people, or that bisexuality gives one more options?Such ethical discussions tend to end up as sophistry, in my opinion.

  11. Luvlymish says

    Anyone would think that people’s sexuality might be down to a combination of nature and nurture…but surely that can’t be the case!

  12. LydiaEncyclopedia says

    Great post! This eased my fears not only about the “aborting teh gayz”, but something much more dear and personal to me: Within the autism community, we live in constant fear of someone finding a neonatal test for autism, the way there is one for down syndrome and other disabilities, essentially reducing our community to a thing of the history books. Knowing this is not bloody likely, in spite of ballyhooing of such a “miracle cure” by groups like Autism Speaks reassures me.

  13. says

    I was just about to comment on on your rather uninformed classification of philosophy as a “circle jerk,” but I see I was beaten to it. It is a stain on an otherwise fantastic article. I don’t think the problem is philosphers taking it too seriously. The problem is that it is an unsupported, semi-ad hominem attack (even if it is in jest) of something irrelevant to the point of your post, so it can be derailing to read it and then jump back into your writings about the importance of FACTS. And it’s okay to not like philosphy. I love it, but I still acknowledge that it’s a real bitch. Ultimately, though, it is neccessary. Philosophy is the tool we use to make use of scientific facts, and to figure out how to apply the new information. How should advances in genetic screening be used? Who should they be used on? Who has the right to decide? These are philosophical questions, and the answers are not found under a microscope

  14. says

    It wasn’t necessarily just in reply to you, it’s just that others also replied and would keep replying otherwise. And I of course don’t think philosophy is completely worthless, but it’s sort of an in-joke around here for me to tease it after a completely horrible philosophy class I had. Problem is people don’t read sarcasm well over the internet, so I’m just saving myself the headache.

  15. Gus Snarp says

    Wait, I have two sons, and the older one loves show tunes. I had not idea I was making gay boys.

  16. Gus Snarp says

    Plus, they have Chuck Norris. While this means that Chuck Norris is nuts, he can still kill us all before we can blink.

  17. Jim Baerg says

    I notice that something else crucial was left out of World Nut Daily’s scenario. Since something like the Uterine Replicator of Lois McMaster Bujold’s fiction is unlikely to be developed in the next few decades: Who is the woman who will carry the baby to term?

  18. benjamin_sa says

    Thanks for the great post, sometimes knowing a little about genetics is a dangerous thing. You concoct a false understanding based on too simple ideas.One question I had though : are closeted communities more likely to have more homosexuals, because homosexuals are less likely to adopt and therefore whatever traits make one more likely to be homosexual get passed onto the next generation?

  19. says

    I’ve always been disheartened by the effort in the gay community to argue it is a genetic trait. It is understandable, as if it is genetic it is not a choice… so all the rights unfurl.Whereas it seems far more likely to be product of unique personal experience that comes from such a deep well of experiences, that predicting for it is about a useful as predicting the weather…. 5 years from now. Sure its all in there somewhere, the data and the variables, the life experiences, the cognitive dissonances, and risk / reward that every brain makes millions of times from when it arrives to when it decides what turns it one, piques its interest, etc.Its not a choice per se, but in prison after 5 years there’s a ton of gay “behavior” – this is obvious, so technically, if you wanted to make a gay man straight – statistically you’d just have to lock him in a women’s prison for 5 years. Once he gets out, all bets are off, but if the right wants to absolutely change behavior there is at least that one option (jk).

  20. Geneboi87 says

    What I find the most interesting is not the religious stupidity or even the wacked out scientific ‘ideas’ but the fact that they chose INDIANAPOLIS of all places, lol!!!!! I mean let’s be honest here of all states they really think INDIANA will allow same-sex marriage by 2025!!!! Far-fetched!!!!

  21. kelseigh says

    Wait…I was under the understanding that the party line on the right was that homosexuality was a lifestyle choice (and thus a sin). So now suddenly it’s something that can be determined before birth? Does that make it no longer a sin now?

  22. kelseigh says

    I guess it does come down to “we just really hate fags”, which is a lot more honest in the end.

  23. breadbox says

    Are you kidding? This is a WND article. No internal coherence required; just some frothing at the mouth.

  24. says

    It’d be nice if they were honest and upfront… I’d certainly have (a little) more respect for them…However, I think one of the ‘loving evangelism’ mantras for this is something like “hate the gayness, not the gay” or something…

  25. Azkyroth says

    Ad hominem refers to an insult used as a PREMISE. An insult attached to a conclusion, even if the rest of the argument isn’t stated, isn’t an ad hominem.

  26. Azkyroth says

    I’ll start taking philosophy seriously once the field gets over the implicit assumption that things can simply be defined into existence by creating a seemingly logical argument that they “must be” that way.

  27. Azkyroth says

    They’re only discussing the PEOPLE involved.PS: why has the software suddenly ceased to remember my username? :/

  28. says

    Actually, a lot of things along those lines (I’m guessing the Ontological Proof of God is one such thing you’d be referring to) don’t usually mean what you’d immediately take them to mean. In the case I refer to, for instance, all that is proved is that there is some ‘thing’ in existence which is necessary for the existence of all other things. This is only proved in the context, in the proof I’ve seen, of Modal Ontological logic, which has some assumptions and premises of its own. A fair chunk of philosophy (one of the better aspects of it) is concerned with the nature of proof, and that is taken on by all sorts of other fields, inclng law, sciences, mathematics… you’re happy enough using terms that come from the philosophical study of logic, such as “ad hominem”.

  29. says

    I remember once seeing a movie that I don’t remember the name of or who was in it. In it a couple gets genetic testing done on their unborn child. When the results come back positive for “gayness” the marriage falls apart because hubby wants and abortion but wifey doesn’t. I don’t want to argue with you, Jen, but movies don’t lie, do they? And does anybody remember what movie that was? It’s going to kill me!

  30. says

    Hear, hear. Philosophical debate is simply the most fun people can have together, with or without clothes on. Quite apart from its important practical applications, of course.Methinks Miss McCreight has an attitude problem…

  31. Azkyroth says

    Of course I am. They’re arbitrary conceptual constructs. With arbitrary conceptual constructs, yes, you can simply define things into existence. This doesn’t work with empirical matters.

  32. says

    Duly noted, though I realized my error shortly after posting. Editing a fleeting comment on someone else’s blog (even someone as cool as Jen) takes too much time away from my real passion, circle jerks.

  33. kevinbbg says

    Yes, it would be much more likely that straight parents are aborting gaybies than vice versa, but not enough people would be upset over that.The right says that gays are only 2% of the population, and of that most gay men will not choose to marry or have children. So we are talking about a very small number of straightbies being aborted – like one or 2 per year. While gaybies being aborted would probably be in the hundreds. So, of course we have to concentrate on aborted straightbies.Good thing we can’t really find out if a baby is straight or gay. And then there is bi-sexuality!! Oh, what a mess!!

  34. says

    I guess this means that evangelical christians will finally stop claiming that homosexuality is purely a lifestyle choice.Or rather, it would, if these people at all acknowledged logical consistency.

  35. says

    Wait Wait Wait….I thought these guys had spent the last 20 years arguing that homosexuality is a choice and that there ISN’T a gay gene?!! I understand these guys lack the cognitive ability to understand genetics…but I would at least expect them to be consistent. I’m seriously not surprised by any thing WND puts out anymore though, not after the article I read the other day in which the guy argued the U.S. should use our military to forcibly convert Muslims into Christians.

  36. Rollingforest says

    Each side thinks the other side is privileged. That’s why I think the whole idea of “They are privileged and therefore aren’t objective” is stupid, because it could be you that isn’t being objective. Better to stick to the facts and forget about the idea of privilege.

  37. says

    I don’t think we can say that it won’t_ happen, just that it’s vanishingly unlikely to happen any time in the near future. Also, by the time it is possible, social mores will probably have changed so much that it’s pointless to try and predict what our grandchildren will do with it. Heck, the might mandate selection for universal bisexuality, with “monos” becoming a despised minority. ;-)


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