Scientists at odds in 'gay gene' debate

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SCIENTISTS, medical ethicists and gay activists yesterday warned of the dangers of using the discovery of a genetic basis for homosexuality to tinker with human sexual preferences.

They were unanimous in their disgust at ever being able to 'diagnose' for a homosexual predisposition in order to offer pregnant women the possibility of selective abortions.

Steve Jones, professor of genetics at University College, London, said: 'What I overwhelmingly hope for is that this research will not be used to make moral judgements. The findings are scientifically fascinating but socially irrelevant.'

He said that in the 1930s the Nazis used an alleged genetic cause for homosexuality to justify their extermination policy. It could equally be argued that showing homosexuality has a genetic predisposition demonstrates that being gay is outside the arena of free will and, therefore, should be as acceptable as any other normal trait.

Raanan Gillon, visiting professor of medical ethics at St Mary's Hospital Medical School, London, said that allowing people to abort foetuses on the grounds of homosexuality was analagous to aborting females because of the desire for boys.

A genetic basis of homosexuality could support the arguments for stronger gay rights, some commentators said. However, Dr Gillon said: 'I don't see it does argue for extra rights but the rights that everyone should have not to be discriminated against unjustly. It raises interesting problems that need to be reflected on but I don't think it's a particularly unique problem.'

Peter Tatchell, spokesman for the gay rights group OutRage, said that aborting foetuses that carry a genetic predisposition to be gay 'is tantamount to prenatal genocide of homosexuals'.

Richard Nicholson, editor of the Bulletin of Medical Ethics, said he hoped the debate would highlight the fine line between minor abnormalities in the foetus that should not lead to termination, and more serious problems that did. 'I don't regard homosexuality as an abnormality that needs to be changed back to heterosexuality.'

He said that an important ethical issue to come out of yesterday's announcement is whether scientific research results from the Human Genome Project, which attempts to identify all human genes, should be released in such a 'piecemeal' fashion.

He said there should be a proper debate on what we regard as 'normal' genetic information, otherwise scientific results might be used to polarise opposing factions still further.

Paul Nurse, professor of biology at Oxford University, disagreed that the announcement of scientific results should be delayed, providing the research has been thoroughly checked. 'It won't help if there is a restriction . . .' he said.

Gay groups were quick to point to potential dangers. 'We deplore any suggestions or attempts at genetic engineering. Lesbians and gay men have a right to equality regardless of whether we are born gay or become gay,' the Stonewall pressure group said. Homosexuals who feel their sexuality instinctively are likely to feel happier with a biological explanation, but bisexuals or those who choose to be gay later in life would reject such an approach, it said. 'The question is not 'why we are gay?' but 'when will we have the right to live our lives without fear of discrimination and persecution?' '

The Campaign for Homosexual Equality said the research could be used to advance the interests of gay people. 'It does away with the notion that homosexuality is a perverse choice'.