Lindsay Beyerstein gets it precisely right. Though on the question of taking measures in utero to determine the orientation of a child, I’m a bit fuzzier: Certainly, to the extent these are risky, it seems grotesque to chance leaving your child with some kind of serious physical defect just to ensure it comes out straight. But if it were safe? Certainly I’m out of sympathy with the sorts of motives we readily imagine as the source of such a choice—though it’s also not hard to think of some less repugnant ones—but it’s hard to argue it constitutes a wrong to the child, as such.
UPDATE: Lindsay has more on her reasons for proposing tampering in utero to affect sexual orientation. She leans pretty heavily on the notion that “homosexuality is not a disease”—and certainly I agree, but that’s neither here nor there. Brown eyes aren’t a disease either, but if there were some (safe) intervention to turn them blue, I wouldn’t object to that either.
Ultimately, the argument Lindsay wants to make here has to put a great deal of weight on the idea that :
It’s frivolous for parents to start doing the equivalent of plastic surgery on their unborn children, with all the attendant moral and physical risks.
I don’t know what the “moral” risks here are, above and beyond the idea that it’s immoral to raise the likelihood that your future child will be burdened with physical defects as a function of the procedure. But that’s double counting, so let’s suppose we’re just talking about physical risks. It sort of depends how extensive there are, doesn’t it? Parents expose children to some risk whenever they take them on car trips, many of which will presumably be for “frivolous” purposes, so I don’t think it will do to say that any risk of any undesirable physical consequence makes the procedure immoral. Moreover, Lindsay would, I think, agree it’s permissible to start the procedure and then abort the fetus if it looks as though it is causing such side effects, to the extent this can be detected early on. So for a sufficiently safe procedure, this objection has to fall away.
Even if we assume the physical risks are significant, though, there’s an added wrinkle. Since we agree that the fetus is not a person, whatever physical consequences result from these in utero will be intrinsic features of the person who later comes into being. It’s then at least an open question whether the child who comes into being after such a procedure can coherently be described as “the same person” as would have existed in the absence of any such intervention. If the child would not be the same person, then we don’t have available the objection that the parents have made the child worse off than it would otherwise have been, since it would not otherwise have been that child. Now, you might agree with this and just aver that it’s wrong to bring a child into the world with certain kinds of physical defects or burdens, regardless of whether these can coherently be described as harms relative to some alternative condition that very child might have been born in. But if we agree that the intervention takes place before the child is a person, we’ve got another bullet to bite: We’ve got to infer that it’s similarly immoral to risk conceiving a child with similar defects, which seems wrong.
More succinctly, compare these two scenarios:
1. A couple creates a series of embryos in vitro. One has various characteristics they find desirable, perhaps including sexual orientation. It also has a certain risk of developing Physical Defect X. They implant this one and discard the others.
2. A couple conceives The Old Fashioned Way, and has a series of treatments that alter the uterine environment to produce various characteristics they find desirable, perhaps including sexual orientation. This also creates a certain risk that the child later born will develop Physical Defect X.
If, as Lindsay and I both believe, the fetus is not a person, what is the morally important distinction between these methods?