Jacob M. Appel is a bioethicist and fiction writer. He holds a B.A. and an M.A. from Brown University, an M.A. and an M.Phil. from Columbia University, an M.D. from Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons, an M.F.A. in creative writing from New York University, and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. He has most recently taught at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, and at the Gotham Writers Workshop in New York City. He publishes in the field of bioethics and contributes to such publications as the Journal of Clinical Ethics, the Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics, and the Bulletin of the History of Medicine. His essays have appeared in The New York Times, The New York Daily News, The Chicago Tribune, and other publications.
Appel has also published short fiction in more than one hundred literary journals. His short story, Shell Game With Organs, won the Boston Review Short Fiction Contest in 1998. His story about two census takers, "Counting," was shortlisted for the O. Henry Award in 2001. Other stories received "special mention" for the Pushcart Prize in 2006 and 2007.
He is admitted to the practice of law in New York State and Rhode Island, and is a licensed New York City sightseeing guide.
Appel contributed a Dangerous Idea to Big Think's "Month of Thinking Dangerously," advocating that we add trace amounts of lithium to our drinking water to help reduce the suicide rate.
Appel is a Big Think Delphi Fellow.
Question: Why should parents be allowed to choose the sexual orientation of their child?
Jacob Appel: I think there are two reasons for this: one, people who oppose the possibility. I mean, technology for the most part really isn’t there yet. Letting people choose the sexual orientation of their children assume that this will lead to more straight children and fewer gay children. I’m not at all convinced that this is the case. If a small percentage of people choose to have straight children because they would otherwise be bigoted – or they otherwise are bigoted and don’t want to have gay children, but a large percentage of gay people choose to have gay children and the average of likelihood of randomly being gay is somewhere between 2% and 10%. On the whole, the number of gay people will actually increase rather than decrease. So I think that’s a red herring argument.
The real concern I have is I want people to be born into families that want them. On an individual basis, as a utilitarian philosopher, I think the least suffering we have the better. And my concern is for the potential gay child born into the bigoted family who mistreats that child, who disowns that child, who drives that child to suicide. And that to me, that suffering is far more concerning than the possibility that we won’t force more progressive cultural values on people who don’t want them.
While I wouldn’t necessarily make that choice personally, I can also understand why a parent might say, “I’m deeply opposed to homophobia, I think the world should be a fair and equal place, but the reality is I want the best for my children. And I understand that people discriminate against gays and lesbians. I don’t want my child to be discriminated against. Until the revolution occurs and there is equality, I want my children to have the best opportunities.” And I wouldn’t necessarily justify that sexual orientation. I think that’s a reasonable philosophy to apply to race, religion, ethnicity, and characteristic.
I should add that I don’t think many will make that choice. I don’t think it will, on the whole lower social diversity. What I think it will do is guarantee that people who do have children who are more diverse want those children.
Question: How much of sexual orientation do you think is genetically determined?
Jacob Appel: I think the research on this is still rapidly evolving. But there will be some genetic component to sexuality. There clearly is some hormonal component in the womb. While there maybe some environmental component too. We simply don’t know yet. I do think over the course of time, we will be able to unravel whatever the complex web of causes of homosexuality, or for that matter whatever the complex web of causes of heterosexuality are. And once we can do that, then parents are going to have to face the choice, and they should be able to make the choice what kind of child they want.
I should add, I’ve already written in the past, that I think parents should be able to choose whether they want to have male children or female children. I think in this country, not many people would do that, and I think the only limitation on that should be, if there is a mass structural dislocation. So I can understand why India might require parents to – might prevent parents from making a choice because of the fear of having a overwhelming number of men in relation to women, I would be far more pressed to say Sweden without those same cultural concerns should be allowed to do this. I would also add for what it’s worth that in cultures where there may be people who choose male children or straight children, they’re outliers like me where if they did make a choice, might choose to have female children or gay children that would balance things out.
The objections to all of these phenomena are really not what people say they are.