Gay Brain Science: Homosexuality a Birth Defect?
Some people are right-brained. Others are left-brained. Apparently, some are gay-brained.
What makes people gay? Biologists may never get a complete answer to that question, but researchers in Sweden have found one more sign that the answer lies in the structure of the brain.
Scientists at the Karolinska Institute studied brain scans of 90 gay and straight men and women, and found that the size of the two symmetrical halves of the brains of gay men more closely resembled those of straight women than they did straight men. In heterosexual women, the two halves of the brain are more or less the same size. In heterosexual men, the right hemisphere is slightly larger. Scans of the brains of gay men in the study, however, showed that their hemispheres were relatively symmetrical, like those of straight women, while the brains of homosexual women were asymmetrical like those of straight men. The number of nerves connecting the two sides of the brains of gay men were also more like the number in heterosexual women than in straight men.
This would seem further evidence, as if any were needed, that homosexuality is biological rather than “a lifestyle choice.”
Slate‘s Will Saletin sees a potentially eerie consequence of this: Homosexuality being treated as a birth defect.
[T]he march of science into the gay brain hasn’t stopped. It has continued, seeking to understand not just what doesn’t cause homosexuality—playing with dolls, growing up with a strong mother, watching Will and Grace—but what does. And the more we understand these biological factors, the closer we get to being able to change them.
Going deeper into the study, we see that the differences in brain symmetry is an effect, not a cause. The most likely cause is “hormonal influences.” It turns out, “homosexuality may be caused by ‘under-exposure to prenatal androgens’ in males and ‘over-exposure’ in females.” This strikes me as quite plausible. Recall that there was a study several years back showing that women who took diet pills during pregnancy were much more likely to have gay children.
But, if it’s a mattering of balancing out hormones . . .
Where science leads, technology follows. Two years ago, scientists in Oregon reported an attempt to “interfere with defeminization of adult sexual partner preferences” in sheep. Their method, as they described it, was to alter hormonal inputs in pregnant ewes “during the period of gestation when the sheep brain is maximally sensitive to the behavior-modifying effects of exogenous testosterone.” When the attempt failed, they concluded that the dosage should be increased.
Would hormonal intervention work in humans? Should we try it? Some thinkers are intrigued. Last year, the Rev. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote: “If a biological basis is found, and if a prenatal test is then developed, and if a successful treatment to reverse the sexual orientation to heterosexual is ever developed, we would support its use.” Mohler told the Associated Press that morally, this would be no different from curing fetal blindness or any other “medical problem.” The Rev. Joseph Fessio, editor of the press that publishes the pope’s work, agreed: “Same-sex activity is considered disordered. If there are ways of detecting diseases or disorders of children in the womb … that respected the dignity of the child and mother, it would be a wonderful advancement of science.”
If the idea of chemically suppressing homosexuality in the womb horrifies you, I have bad news: You won’t be in the room when it happens. Parents control medical decisions, and surveys indicate that the vast majority of them would be upset to learn that their child was gay. Already, millions are screening embryos and fetuses to eliminate those of the “wrong” sex. Do you think they won’t screen for the “wrong” sexual orientation, too?
Oddly, this is happening simultaneously with people becoming far, far accepting of homosexuals and homosexuality. Yet, while they may intellectually agree with the now-shopworn Seinfeld catchphrase, “not that there’s anything wrong with that,” most wouldn’t go so far as being indifferent to whether their own kid was gay. Most, I suspect, would indeed take relatively-low-risk medical steps to ensure that their kid is “normal.”
It doesn’t end there. A few years back, Bryan Murley wondred whether the availability of genetic testing for homosexual predisposition would lead to aborting gay fetuses. It almost surely would.
Science that has answered the prayers of gays in demonstrating a biological determinant, proving that they weren’t freaks who made a choice to live a life of sinful disobedience to society’s moral code but merely living “as God made them.” This has helped normalize homosexuality in the eyes of the medical community — it has long since been removed from the list of “mental disorders” — and the minds of most Americans. Yet, we may have come full circle to thinking of homosexuality as something to be cured.
UPDATE: My colleague Alex Knapp notes the large number of homosexuals who have made tremendous contributions to humanity and wonders whether changing “the very structure” of their brains risks might have also taken away their gifts. The snarky retort I generally make to that sort of argument is to note the number of truly rotten people who we might theoretically been saved from. But the real answer is that we’re far from having a sufficient understanding of such things to know what the effects of hormonal “cures” would be. Which is probably as good a reason as any not to attempt them.