Scientists in Oregon are conducting experiments to change the sexuality of “gay” sheep in a program that critics fear could pave the way for breeding out homosexuality in humans.
The Times UK reports that the technique being developed by researchers at Oregon State University in the city of Corvallis and at the Oregon Health and Science University in Portland adjusts the hormonal balance in the brains of homosexual rams so that they are more inclined to mate with ewes.
It raises the prospect that pregnant women could one day be offered a treatment to reduce or eliminate the chance that their offspring will be homosexual. Experts say that, in theory, the “straightening” procedure on humans could be as simple as a hormone supplement for mothers-to-be, worn on the skin like an anti-smoking nicotine patch.
According to the Times, the research has caused an outcry. Lesbian tennis icon Martina Navratilova, who won Wimbledon nine times, along with scientists and gay rights campaigners in Britain have called for the project to be abandoned.
Navratilova defended the “right” of sheep to be gay.
“How can it be that in the year 2006 a major university would host such homophobic and cruel experiments?” she said in a media statement issued in late December. She said gay men and lesbians would be “deeply offended” by the social implications of the tests.
The Register reports that UK gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell declared: “These experiments echo Nazi research in the early 1940s which aimed at eradicating homosexuality. They stink of eugenics. There is a danger that extreme homophobic regimes may try to use these experimental results to change the orientation of gay people.”
The Register also reports that Udo Schuklenk, Professor of Bioethics at Glasgow Caledonian University, who wrote to the researchers pressing them to stop, added: “I don’t believe the motives of the study are homophobic, but their work brings the terrible possibility of exploitation by homophobic societies. Imagine this technology in the hands of Iran, for example. It is typical of the US to ignore the global context in which this is taking place.”
But the researchers argue that the work is valid, shedding light on the “broad question” of what determines sexual orientation. According to the Times, they insist the work is not aimed at “curing” homosexuality.
The Register reports that Professor Charles Roselli, the Health and Science University biologist heading the research program, defended his work with: “It’s a touchy issue. In fact, several studies have shown that people who believe homosexuality is biologically based are less homophobic than people who think that this orientation is acquired.”
Approximately one ram in 10 prefers to mount other rams rather than mate with ewes, reducing its value to a farmer. Initially, the publicly funded project aimed to improve the productivity of herds.
The scientists have been able to pinpoint the mechanisms influencing the desires of “male-oriented” rams by studying their brains. The animals’ skulls are cut open and electronic sensors are attached to their brains.
By varying the hormone levels, mainly by injecting hormones into the brain, they have had “considerable success” in altering the rams’ sexuality, with some previously gay animals becoming attracted to ewes.
The research is being peer-reviewed by a panel of scientists in the U.S., demonstrating that it is being taken seriously by the academic community, reports the Times.