Gay sheep revisited.

Science, technology, and life.
Feb. 8 2007 7:34 AM

Wool and Graze

Gay sheep revisited.

(Continued from Page 1)

Notice that Stormshak never singles out gay rams. He worries about rams that are gay "or asexual." He's not trying to get rid of homosexuality; he's trying to promote fertility. What a ram does on his own time is his own business, as long as he "performs" on the job: impregnating ewes.

Purging homosexuality and promoting fertility are not identical. If all you care about is producing more sheep, you can pursue that today through cloning, which also gives you total control of the genome. A ram's orientation wouldn't matter, particularly if most of what causes that orientation turns out not to be genetic. And if your motive is economic rather than normative, there's no reason to assume you'd tinker with people the way you tinker with sheep. Lambs are exploitable property. Babies aren't.

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4. Motive-framing is a potent weapon in the politics of science. PETA opposes the manipulation, exploitation, and killing of animals. Not many people share its zeal about stamping out those practices. But lots of people get upset at the idea of using chemicals to wipe out homosexuality. So PETA has blurred the two issues, accusing Roselli and Stormshak of the latter when, at worst, they're guilty of the former. That's why so many gays and liberals have joined the outcry against the research.

5. Science and technology can change morality. Ethics doesn't float above science while judging it. Ethics has scientific assumptions built in. For instance, most people who regard homosexuality as a sin assume you can regulate your sexual orientation. If studies prove orientation is biologically determined, this objection collapses.

But the upheaval doesn't end there. Most people who defend homosexuality as a biological trait assume it can't be changed. Martina Navratilova, for example, is asking the universities to shut down the sheep research and spend the money instead on fostering "acceptance for people of all sexual preferences." What if the research destroys that assumption, too? What if it proves that sexual orientation is biologically based and that we don't have to accept it? What if science makes it possible to chemically reduce the prevalence of homosexuality without oppressing anyone?

That's the first reason not to squelch basic research. If you let it run its course, it might disabuse you of the assumptions that made you want to squelch it. The same can be true of technology. Looking back at the wretched history of hormone therapy for homosexuality, it's easy to say, "Never again." But the latest, albeit unsuccessful, interventions in sheep are at the fetal stage, when the brain is taking shape. If you don't regard the human fetus as a person—precisely because its brain hasn't fully formed—can you really say it was ever gay? Does your objection to medicating gay people still apply?

That's another reason to let research go forward: It might expose contradictions in your politics. You might find yourself in the odd position of pleading for acceptance of homosexuality as a natural condition while at the same time denouncing Catholic bishops who plead for acceptance of infertility as a natural condition. Is one kind of infertility more sacred than another?

The final reason to be wary of stifling research is that half-developed technology can be worse than the finished product. The sheep investigators have already identified brain markers that roughly correlate with homosexuality. What they deny doing—and PETA, in its efforts to stop the research, accuses them of doing—is trying to alter orientation in the womb. But if doctors learn to spot emerging gay brains and are unable to alter them, parents who are determined not to raise gay children will do what's already done to female fetuses in much of the world: abort them.

Science is scary. It can change your body and your mind. But smothering it can be just as dangerous. The wisest course is to keep an eye on its participants, their motives, and potential applications of their work, never letting one motive or application obscure others. Political attacks that blur these differences don't help.