Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Adventures on the Dark Side

By Michael Cook

Cases of sexual attraction are bound to grow as “genetic orphans” seek out their missing parents.

The British press is a fathomless mine of lurid but thought-provoking explorations of the dark side of the human condition. Recently it featured a passionate romance between a 51-year-old British woman and her 32-year-old American son.

Kim West was studying in California when she had a child out of wedlock. She gave him up for adoption and returned to England. Nearly 30 years later they were reunited and immediately felt an overwhelming sexual attraction. Ben ended up abandoning his missus and moving in with his mum. They are considering having children.

Most people find this real-life scenario confronting, but it raises interesting questions about bioethical reasoning.

Post-adoption romance is a poorly-understood but well-documented phenomenon. In the 1980s an American adoption counsellor, Barbara Gonyo, coined the term “genetic sexual attraction” for these powerful feelings. Two British psychologists interviewed several people in the grip of genetic sexual attraction who all described “a romantic ‘falling in love’, intense and explosive, sudden and almost irresistible”.

The psychologists estimated that such feelings are present about 50% of the time when siblings and parents are reunited. Their article was published 20 years ago in the British Journal of Medical Psychology (later renamed Psychology and Psychotherapy), so it’s possible that the number of cases has increased.

A columnist for The Telegraph (London) also pointed out that the use of anonymous sperm donation could cause a huge increase in the prevalence of genetic sexual attraction. Children can contact their biological parents as soon as they turn 18, so genetic sexual attraction numbers are bound to grow as “genetic orphans” seek out their missing parents.

If we have to deal with more genetic sexual attraction in society, is there anything in the bioethical toolkit to prevent legalising and normalising incest? Possibly not.

The most widely-accepted theory of bioethics is principalism. Although we live in an intellectually Balkanised society, it says, everyone accepts the need for autonomy (informed consent), beneficence (no harm) and justice (balancing individual and social rights). These help us reach a consensus on hot-button issues like IVF, stem cell research or privacy.

Principalism has been a great help in navigating through the thickets of ethical controversy provoked by new technologies. However, it sometimes clashes violently with moral intuitions, our inarticulate “gut feel”. Genetic sexual attraction is one of these.

When assessed by each of these principles, genetic sexual attraction would probably get a tick. Autonomy? Kim and Ben are consenting adults who understand the issues. Justice? They have a right to express themselves sexually. Beneficence? They are not harming each other.

But wouldn’t their offspring be at greater risk of birth defects? Perhaps, but this is disputed. In an article in Criminal Law and Philosophy, an academic at Rutgers School of Law, Vera Bergelson, has argued that science does not bear this out:

... it is far from clear that inbreeding presents a threat to society. The number of serious genetic disorders associated with inbreeding is quite limited. Moreover, some scientists believe that, in the long run, populations may suffer from the prevention of consanguineous marriages ...

In any case, an elevated incidence of genetic defects is clearly a risk that our society is willing to take. Otherwise we would have banned IVF. Nor do we ban marriage between people who are carriers of serious genetic diseases.

Bergelson concludes that “the true reason behind the long history of the incest laws is the feeling of repulsion and disgust this tabooed practice tends to evoke in the majority of population. However, in the absence of wrongdoing, neither a historic taboo nor the sense of repulsion and disgust legitimizes criminalization of an act.”

That is one conclusion. The other is that principalism’s toolbox is not big enough to deal with genetic sexual attraction.

Perhaps we need to analyse our “gut feel” more deeply. When we do, we might see that principalism’s attitude to sexuality and well-being is quite inadequate. Perhaps participants in genetic sexual attraction are being harmed at a deeper level than mere sexual satisfaction, to say nothing of their children.

There might be wisdom in the Yuck Factor after all.

Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge, an online bioethics newsletter.