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photos by Lara Shipley

Ask Your Doctor About Hetracil

November 10th, 2005 · 13 Comments

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?

Tags: Sexual Politics



13 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Parsifal // Nov 10, 2005 at 10:54 pm

    It’s a hoax, you silly goose..


  • 2 Parsifal // Nov 10, 2005 at 11:18 pm

    I re-read it and, uh, you know that.

  • 3 Charles // Nov 11, 2005 at 1:34 pm

    Should parents be allowed to change their child’s sexual orientation? The question comes down to whether the parent’s preference for the child should outweigh the potential preference of that child. The answer is no.

    A parent certainly has the right to control the behavior of a child, but this dominion is fated to weaken with every day. Eventually the child will mature and move on and out into the world. There comes a time when the parent’s control over the child’s behavior must end.

    Hetracil extends the parent’s dominion beyond the natural order, and into the realm of the offspring’s autonomy. The drug cuts to the very center of what it means to be a person and makes a change. This change is not temporary or remedial (at least not as framed in this discussion). The change is, to the parents, merely preferable.

    The preferences of one’s parents are intended to serve as a guide or lightpost, not a straightjacket. Parent’s rightful dominion is over the actions of the minor child, not over the mind of the adult offspring.

  • 4 Niels Jackson // Nov 12, 2005 at 10:33 pm

    Why on earth WOULDN’T parents be presumptively able to give their children a drug that cures a defective condition? On any evolutionary perspective, homosexuality is just as dysfunctional as hyperactivity or depression or suicidal thoughts. Parents regularly obtain prescriptions that help children deal with the latter conditions. Why not the former?

  • 5 Gene Callahan // Nov 13, 2005 at 11:23 pm

    OK, I posted a joke relevant to this discussion here.

  • 6 Julian Sanchez // Nov 14, 2005 at 10:56 am

    Funny you should mention that; K.A. Appiah cites the same joke (or a variant thereof, anyway) in his book “The Ethics of Identity”–and I found myself thinking of it as I was writing the post.

    Because it’s silly to make individual decisions from an evolutionary perspective. Natural selection maximizes inclusive fitness over time; there’s no reason whatever that this ought to be the goal of any individual.

  • 7 Niels Jackson // Nov 17, 2005 at 12:23 am

    Julian —

    I’m not saying that the parents are morally OBLIGED to administer the drug. But it is astonishing to me that anyone would consider it immoral for them to do so. From an evolutionary perspective, is it at all surprising that people want to maximize their chance of having natural-born grandchildren? Not hardly. So that’s one heavy blow against the notion that it is somehow morally suspect for parents to administer the drug. One might as well say that it is immoral for parents to give their children a good education, or a nice set of clothing, or anything that improves the children’s status in life.

  • 8 Julian Sanchez // Nov 17, 2005 at 9:14 am

    OK, but I think now you’re acknowledging that the “evolutionary perspective” is morally irrelevant except insofar as it affects happiness (because evolution has hardwired us to have certain patterns of desire). So what you’re saying is that it’s OK because a child who’s made straight is likely to be happier (perhaps for evolutionary reasons). That strikes me as a lot more speculative than the parallel proposition about education, for one because general truths about evolutionary preference patterns aren’t instantiated the same way in each individual, but let’s suppose for the moment it’s true. There are plenty of ways one might increase someone’s happiness that would be immoral. Let’s say someone plans to forego having children so he can devote his full energy to, say, becoming a great artist or musician. You might think he’d be happier in the long run if he lost that desire and had kids. Let’s even say you know for sure this is the case. That wouldn’t make it right to reprogram the person–not as an adult, anyway. Our intuition might be different with children because we don’t think they have the same sort of robust claims to respect for their identity or autonomy, but not because anything you do to make someone happier is per se moral.

  • 9 Niels Jackson // Nov 17, 2005 at 10:15 am

    I’m not sure what you’re responding to. My only point is this: Given billions of years of evolution, people tend to prefer to reproduce themselves. They like to have children. And parents then like their own children to give them grandchildren. (This should hardly be news to anyone who knows parents of adult children. “When are the grandkids coming along, hint, hint?”)

    Given this innate and compelling desire, it is hardly surprising that most parents are a bit dismayed to find out that their child is homosexual. For reasons that are too obvious to explain, a homosexual child means a drastically reduced chance that grandchildren will come about.

    So if there was a way for the parents to ensure that their child was interested in heterosexual relationships (which are likely to lead to grandchildren), it shouldn’t be surprising that most or even all of the parents would take this path.

    And so the overall point is: Straining to find an excuse to deem such conduct immoral is an uphill battle. Why bother? Saying that parents have no right to define their children’s identity is silly. Parents affect their children’s identity in a million different ways, and there’s no conceivable way that this could not be the case.

  • 10 Julian Sanchez // Nov 17, 2005 at 2:26 pm

    I think you’ve got it backward: I’m not “straining” to show it is immoral. Rather, my initial reaction was that this was self-evidently immoral on its face, but I then laid out a series of reasons why that obvious-seeming conclusion might not hold after all. The point that parents “affect” their children’s idenities in various ways is one that I myself made, but it’s scarcely dispositive: The whole question is what methods of affecting a child’s identity are morally admissible. Providing an example for your child to follow is pretty much unobjectionable (assuming it’s not a monstrous example). Locking your kid in the basement for electroshock behavioral conditioning is both immoral and illegal. Various ways of exerting psychological and emotional pressure on a child might be legal but immoral, depending on the behavior the parent was trying to change. Obviously (I would think), the same might be true of different sorts of personality-altering medications. Lumping them together as ways of “accect[ing] their children’s identity” elides the cetnral question.

  • 11 albert // Dec 16, 2005 at 9:25 am

    hey…why use Hetracil when we already have sexual ressignment surgery available to us?
    Unless…it’s less expensive.

  • 12 karen // Dec 29, 2005 at 12:19 am

    late to this party, linkjumping got me here, never been here before.

    Julian, being gay isn’t the same thing as being the wrong gender for your biology. If you subjected a man who was gay but not transgendered to reassignment surgery, he’d a) be really mad and b) still be a gay man, just with a vagina now.

  • 13 karen // Dec 29, 2005 at 12:21 am

    oops, I mean Albert. Mis-read who wrote that comment.