Have you been feeling a little, well, queer? You may be one of millions of Americans afflicted with a condition called “homosexuality.” Fortunately, there’s Hetracil, the prescription medication guaranteed to put an end to chronic impure thoughts about members of your own sex.
Such, at any rate, is the premise of Anti313!, an ingenious fictive activist blog ostensibly penned by a 20-something engineer who is convinced that his highly religious mother saved his life by putting him on the drug, which “cured” him of the nascent homosexual urges he had begun to grapple with as a teenager. The “313” refers to “Proposition 313,” an initiative that would prevent the drug from being prescribed to children. Now, I expect human sexuality and sexual orientation are too complex to be transformed so radically by a pill, but imagining that one could exist presents some interesting questions.
Presumably not many people would object to an adult’s deciding, for whatever reason, to change his orientation. I imagine that, if it were reversible, not a few people might be interested in seeing how the other half (or the other four percent) lives for a while. But what about giving the drug to kids or adolescents? There are really two distinct questions: What do we think of it morally, and what do we think the law ought to permit? You might think it’s an appalling thing for a parent to do to a child, but that government nevertheless ought not step into the parent/child relationship by making it illegal. We might just as much, after all, think it’s appalling to fill children’s heads with the sorts of religious doctrines that cause them to feel tormented by their own sexuality, but we don’t intervene in those cases. (Though one possible difference: A child can grow to reject the doctrines he imbibed at momma’s knee; the pill appears to be irreversible in this scenario.) On the other hand, someone might conceivably think that people shouldn’t be gay—so there’s a sense in which, from that perspective, parents who give their child Hetracil are conferring a benefit—but that (maybe because autonomy is important) everyone ought nevertheless to have to make the choice for himself after reaching the age of reason—or at least legal majority.
There is, of course, the tricky issue of the child’s consent: I at least assume our intutions are different about the kid whose parents make him get the treatment and the child who—whatever we think of that desire—desperately wants to be “normal.” We might think the latter child is making a mistake—that he’ll be the stronger for coming to terms with his own sexuality—but I doubt anyone thinks the state should be the one to tell him he’s got to do it on the grounds that it’s character building. Realistically speaking, though, while we can draw that line morally, I very much doubt it’s possible to draw it legally. A sufficiently mature child who didn’t want to take Hetracil could presumably sue for emancipation, but otherwise, if it’s allowed for kids at all, it’d end up being given kids who either didn’t give or, far more often, weren’t really capable of giving genuine informed consent.
On the moral question, my gut feeling, my visceral first reaction, is that this is an appalling thing to do to a child—a kind of identity rape. But there are a few aspects of the situation that make me not wholly sure about it. One obvious one is that, once the treatment is complete, the child presumably doesn’t resent it. It’s not (as is currently often the case) that the child remains homosexual, but his identity is cruelly repressed. As its presented, the kid comes out genuinely straight. You can imagine complications—say, if he’s already begun to fall in love with some boy, or started a relationship. But for the most part, you don’t imagine the kid coming out on the other end regarding himself as having been harmed. If you really and genuinely (at the end) prefer one gender, are you really likely to resent that you don’t (anymore) prefer the other? You can think of reasons it might be the case, but they’re peripheral. Though there is, of course, the obvious rejoinder that effective brainwashing works the same way: If the “treatment” takes, the subject will be nothing but grateful that you showed them how wonderful it is to obey the Dear Leader unquestioningly.
You might even imagine parents making, if you will, prophylactic use of the drug: Giving little Timmy the drug as a toddler, before he’s really aware of a sexual identity in any self-conscious way, to ensure he turns out heterosexual. (Absent that, they’re stuck with James Dobson’s exhibitionist tactics.) What they’ve changed there, it seems, is best thought of as a kind of potential.
It’s also not clear that this is of a different kind from any number of other formative influences parents have on children. Insofar as being straight isn’t in itself a harm, what’s really objectionable seems to be the attenuation of the child’s autonomy. But children aren’t ultimately all that autonomous; they’re being prepared for autonomy. Adults may decide to reject the faith or tastes or habits their parents tried to inculcate in them as children, but what they can’t escape is being formed by the attempt to inculcate. I may think the same things as, say, another atheist who came to that view after being raised in a religious household—but he’ll be someone who had the experience of losing faith.
So I’m wondering whether the initial intuitive reaction isn’t more to what we’d imagine as the motives of the parents—a misguided belief that homesexuality is sick, sinful, wrong—than to anything inherently immoral about the treatment that I can put my finger on. But we can also imagine they’re splendidly liberal parents hoping to preempt an ordeal for their child in a community less liberal than they.
So, at this point, I guess I’ll open it up to commenters: Would it be wrong for parents to put their kids on Hetracil? And should it be legal?