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by Timothy F. Murphy
MIT Press, 2012
Review by Elin Weiss on Jun 27th 2014

Ethics, Sexual Orientation, and Choices about Children

Ethics, Sexual Orientation, and Choices about Children by Timothy F. Murphy discusses the hypothetical issue of: if homosexuality had a genetic component and could be identified with DNA-analysis, would it be morally and ethically defensible for parents to be able to chose their child's sexual identity, either heterosexuality or homosexuality?

At the moment there is no gene or trait that has been found to in any reliable manner be able to predict heterosexuality or homosexuality. If there were, however, should parents be allowed to use prenatal interventions and genetically test embryos to then select for a child that is heterosexual or homosexual or chose against a child that is believed to be heterosexual or homosexual? In short, this is the question that Murphy sets out to discuss.

Murphy defines prenatal interventions as: "...any testing, evaluation, or intervention that is carried out on gametes, embryos, or fetuses. This includes DNA testing, anatomical interventions, hormonal interventions, pharmaceutical interventions, and abortion, among other things that might be available to parents and their clinicians as they make decisions about having children and having children with particular traits (p. xvi).

Murphy discusses some of the arguments against prenatal interventions such as: the belief that the opportunity to select for heterosexuality or homosexuality in children would diminish the number of homosexual women and men in the future, that interventions would be expensive and homosexuality would become a marker of poverty, that having the possibility to chose a child's sexuality would mean that homosexual children would not be chosen and that such interventions reflect poor attitudes and discrimination against homosexual women and men.

Murphy takes a clear position on the matter and believes that parents should be allowed to choose. He gives a number of reasons for this such as the fact that some parents mistreat their homosexual children and it would be better for these parents to not have homosexual children. Some parents are also afraid of the treatment homosexual children would face from society at large and want to protect their children from this (studies mentioned in the book have shown that some homosexual parents also wish to shelter their children from some of the possible social disadvantages of homosexuality and would rather chose heterosexual children). Murphy also believes that parents might positively embrace explanations of their child's homosexuality, that not every pregnant woman would want testing, that some parents would select for homosexual children, that we cannot assume that women would terminate the pregnancy based on a child's possible homosexuality and that pushing homosexual children towards heterosexuality can damage the child.

Murphy writes that: "Is it rational for parents to prefer more advantages for their children than disadvantages, or -- to put t another way -- there is no irrationality in trying to keep children from avoidable social disadvantages, and no one of any stature in the debate makes the argument that homosexuality is without some degree of social disadvantage when compared to heterosexuality" (p. 14).

Murphy also points out that the reason that some homosexual individuals have a minority status is because of social influences that value heterosexuality above homosexuality and in this Murphy mentions heterosexism (p. 11)the belief that heterosexuality is superior to homosexuality and that heterosexuality is normal while homosexuality is abnormal. Murphy states that: "The same social outcomes are not possible for homosexual and heterosexual children insofar at the former face some degree of social hostility, some social disadvantages, and even nonacceptance in their own families. These difficulties are social artefacts, however. Societies do not have to put obstacles in the way of homosexual people, and families do not have to value heterosexual children over homosexual children" (p. 92). Murphy also mentions that he hopes there will be no need for prenatal interventions if such testing became available.

To be honest, I usually do not care much for philosophical books and these type of discussions but Murphy is a great writer whose arguments are difficult to disprove and disagree with. I find myself agreeing with many of Murphy's arguments and I especially like when he criticizes the notion of some unspoken social justice that perpetuates the notion that safety in numbers is a guarantee against discrimination. Even though the book is fairly repetitive at times, it is a book that I would recommend to readers who are willing to engage in a hypothetical and philosophical discussion. It might therefore be a difficult read for persons who typically engage with articles and books with reliable measures and interpretable data. 


© 2014 Elin Weiss


Elin Weiss has a Bachelor's Degree in Psychology and a Master's Degree in Women's Studies from University College Dublin, Ireland.


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