Perfecting the Saints in utero

June 29, 2006 | 63 comments
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Commenter Mark IV asks an interesting question:

IF we determine that homosexuality is genetic, and IF we figure out how to manipulate the fetus in utero to “fix� the homosexuality, would it be morally wrong to do so?

This question is hypothetical, but soon may not be. We’d best think about things like this now before time and technology steal up on us. Since we don’t know what form the technology to fix children’s genes will be, lets make the discussion simpler and assume that it doesn’t kill embryos or involve any significant risks to the baby or the mother.

My gut approach to the general question of when its OK to fix children’s genes is the same approach I take to questions of when its OK to use surgery and medicine on living people to alter the natural course of affairs (which in practice turns out to be a discussion about when plastic surgery is OK). My gut always says that its OK to tamper when a person’s condition is below the human norm, which means, for example, that it would be OK to genetically edit out a child’s potential for spina bifida, or cancer, but not to give the child a high IQ. But this is all in the gut, and the gut, like William, can be a gay deceiver. (Har! What a comedian I am).

Anyway, assuming that my gut instinct is right, what does this tell us about tampering with a child’s latent genes for homosexuality? (For discussion on the likelihood that a predisposition to homosexuality has genetic causes, see here) I’m not sure it tells us much, and here’s why. Conditions like spina bifida are pure negatives. Folks who suffer from them sometimes get positive effects from struggling to overcome the condition, but the condition itself has no redeeming features. I’m not sure that is the case with a condition like homosexuality. From an LDS standpoint, the temptation towards homosexual acts and the barrier to heterosexual marriages are big negatives, but I just don’t think that homosexuality is purely a condition of sexual desire. I’m pretty sure that homosexual attraction involves brain chemistry and other elements of personality and character in unique ways that enrich the sum total of human experience. Also, even homosexuality were nothing more than same-sex attraction, sexual attraction is so tied up with our experience and being as humans that I would be hard pressed to see the attraction itself as a pure negative. I asked a lesbian friend who is completely committed to Christian beliefs whether she’d go for a medical change of her condition and her answer was that it was very complicated. I think she’s right.

Finally, several kinds of evidence shows that homosexuality may not be genetic but caused by the mother’s hormones or immune system. (For one example, see here). Does this change the calculus any? It does for my gut. I don’t know why, but changing genes sounds more intrusive into a child’s being than changing the environment does. In practice we try to influence our children environmentally all the time, and the scriptures and the prophets seem to approve.

So, readers, your insights:

1) How do we determine when it is morally OK to alter a child’s genetic make-up?

2) Given your answer to #1, would it be morally OK to alter a child so that it didn’t have homosexuality?

3) Does your answer change if its the biological environment in the womb being altered and not the child’s genes?

4) Does your answer change if the question is applied to an adult who is deciding whether to undergo treatment themselves?

Some ground rules:

1) Discussion should be consistent with the LDS view that homosexual behavior is wrong, that sealed heterosexual unions are our highest, best destiny, etc., and with the LDS view that homosexuality itself is not a sin. Commenters do not need to specifically affirm these ideas and it should not be understood that anyone commenting here necessarily accepts them. Nevertheless, discussion should either accept them arguendo or per impossibile, or should advance arguments that do not rely on the truth or falsity of these ideas.

2) Please avoid discussing legal action. This is a post about morality alone.

3) Please avoid redoing old debates on gay marriage and so on.

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63 Responses to Perfecting the Saints in utero

  1. Sarah on June 29, 2006 at 7:59 am

    I’m not sure you can resort to pure principles and give really firm guidelines as to when something is and is not appropriate. In my case, I think it probably would have been helpful to have modified my genes to prevent obesity, nearsightedness, any tendencies towards diabetes, etc., but I’m not sure about my birthmark (surgery to remove it didn’t become safe enough to perform on children & common enough to be covered by insurance till I was old enough that the choice was presented to me.) When it comes to various personality/psychological things, my primary concerns are so heavily weighted by things like “will it work,” and “if you take away the bi-polar disorder does that mean the child won’t be brilliant anymore, too” and issues related to people I love who have characteristics that genetic manipulation would definitely be targeted at, that I’m not sure I can be objective — so if I had a child today I’d say no, that’s not appropriate as a blanket rule. I can’t say that for everyone.

    Having said that, parents already have a pretty broad range of actions open to them when it comes to determining their childrens’ genetics and personality — they generally choose which person to have children with, they generally control all of the home environment, and many, especially in the US, have extensive discretion as far as education, culture, and religion are concerned. We move from one town to another to avoid overhead wires, and homeschool our kids, and read them bedtime stories… or not. We take vitamin supplements and refuse epidurals, or not. The biggest difference between those things and pure genetic manipulation is that it seems more like you can say with certainty what the outcome will be — and people have been fooling parents for at least two centuries, making them sure that such-and-such method really will work. From a moral standpoint I’m not convinced you can separate genetic manipulation and clearly acceptable parenting methods like vegetarianism or going to church every Sunday; for young kids there’s no issue of informed choice in either case.

    As for adults, so long as things are made clear to them, I’d be forced to fall on the side of permissability for genetic “cures” for behavioral disorders. Full disclosure past the age of consent is pretty much the libertarian standard, though. I’m not sure, if I were a doctor, that I’d feel comfortable administering that kind of treatment. Which is part of why I want to be a lawyer instead. ^_^

    (I don’t think it’s necessary to include homosexuality to think about the situation clearly… as long as you’ve opened the door to changing things that aren’t necessarily debilitating, you’re probably already there for the purposes of debate, and it saves 250 posts on same-sex marriage.)

  2. WillF on June 29, 2006 at 8:05 am

    What if you reverse the question? As in, would it OK for homosexual parents to change the sexual orientation of an in utero child to match their orientation? If you allowed the change one way, I think you would have a hard time defending why it couldn’t go the other way.

  3. Matt Evans on June 29, 2006 at 8:15 am

    Adam, just to push one of your points further, I don’t see any potential moral problems stemming from improving a child’s environment. Indeed, we have an obligation to monitor and protect our children’s environment. Our discomfort with genetic therapy is that it changes the child itself, raising moral questions of means and ends. Of course, the Mormon view of body-as-vassel effects our perspective of what the child is “itself”, and that is probably where this discussion would be most fruitful. I can’t think of any theological injuction against curing genetic disorders, or against viewing genetic manipulation as being ontologically equivalent to removing or transplanting organs. Removing a disordered gene is like removing an infected pancreas, inserting a healthy gene like transplanting a healthy liver.

  4. Adam Greenwood on June 29, 2006 at 8:19 am

    Will F.,
    we’re not talking legality here, we’re talking morality from an LDS perspective. I’m not sure that fully-LDS parents, in harmony with Church teachings about the sinfulness of homosexual behavior and our destiny as sealed, man-woman procreative pairs, could morally make their child homosexual. I’d be interested in your argument.

  5. Adam Greenwood on June 29, 2006 at 8:23 am

    Matt E.,

    I don’t believe that the spirit is the real person and the body is a waldo. The real person is the combination of of spirit and flesh into one soul. It seems to me that much of our teaching about sexuality, e.g., doesn’t make sense if you take the contrary view. The enormous effect that genes, etc., have on our makeup and personality doesn’t make sense either. But people who think differently will probably be more comfortable with gene-tampering.

  6. Adam Greenwood on June 29, 2006 at 8:34 am

    Sarah,

    Very insightful comment. Maybe I should turn the blogkeys over to you and retire. I think you are right that a lot of the morality of gene-tampering depends on the certainty of what will change and what the side-effects will be, where the more uncertain you are whetther the effects will be good, the more immoral. Having said that, let me disagree with your point that

    The biggest difference between those things [environmental manipulation] and pure genetic manipulation is that it seems more like you can say with certainty what the outcome will be.

    Since genetic manipulation is speculative right now we just don’t know which will be more certain and under what circumstances. So I don’t think that’s the relevant difference. The real difference comes, I think, from the fact that parents can’t help but consciously take actions that manipulate their child’s environment, so environment manipulation is not really a choice. Gene-tampering is. No one has to alter their child’s genes.

    I agree that this discussion doesn’t really need to be about homosexuality since in my view, as in yours, the principles involved are not sui generis.

  7. slm on June 29, 2006 at 8:41 am

    Adam, by your third question did you mean the environment of the womb (i.e. mother’s hormones)? Aren’t you asking if perhaps it would be wrong to alter a child’s genes, but not the child’s environment in utero?

    [Editor's note: Yes. I'll make that clearer.]

  8. Julie M. Smith on June 29, 2006 at 10:14 am

    What if we found that a propensity for anger or laziness (which I mention because they are the two temptations that I struggle with most) were found to be the result of conditions of the womb enviroment? Would we be justified in ‘fixing’ that?

    I hope not. At a certain point, this starts to look like Satan’s plan–where we take away every potential for wrongdoing in order to protect people.

    I’m only about 2% along in fixing my own tendencies toward anger and laziness, but I still wouldn’t give up the refiner’s fire.

    And, Adam, thank you for a very thoughtful post.

  9. WillF on June 29, 2006 at 10:37 am

    If I feel that is morally acceptable to alter the sexual orientation of a child of my own, then wouldn’t I have to accept that it is morally acceptable for a gay parent to switch the orientation of his child?

  10. Adam Greenwood on June 29, 2006 at 11:00 am

    No. Accepting the one means accepting the other only if you think the moral acceptability of gene-tampering is completely independent of what sorts of changes are made. But I don’t think it is. To take an extreme case, fixing a child’s spina bifida is a lot different than giving a child spina bifida

    Compare the way you phrase the issue in your comment #9 and the way I phrase it in #4 and you’ll see what I’m getting at.

  11. . Matt Evans on June 29, 2006 at 11:05 am

    Adam, D&C 93:33 says that man is spirit, but to receive a fulness of joy must be “inseparably” connected with “element.” Our spirits aren’t inseparable from element until the resurrection, at which time we will have perfected bodies absent of all disorders and defects occasioned by the fall. And because all of our physical problems will be cured in the resurrection, our current physical constitutions are, ultimately, fleeting and cursory. A person born blind in this world because of a genetic disorder does not have a blind soul, nor will they have a blind future. Their resurrected eyes will see more plainly than anyone’s see now (everyone here has eyes that see imperfectly). The same fate awaits every disorder of the physical body, whether caused by genes or environment.

  12. Adam Greenwood on June 29, 2006 at 11:21 am

    Matt, the same is true of the spirit, though. Our spirits are now defective in many ways, and it is only through grace and the atonement that they are put right. I don’t think we can say our physical element isn’t really *us* because of the defects in it.

  13. greenfrog on June 29, 2006 at 12:06 pm

    1) How do we determine when it is morally OK to alter a child’s genetic make-up?

    a. When the technology and technique are sufficiently developed to enable reasonable probabilities of success; and

    b. When we intend to do good, rather than evil, by the alterations.

    Note: I’m aware of the vagaries of “b,” but I’m not sure there’s a more definitive set of principles that should guide us at this stage.

    Part of the fascinating aspect of your original question is the point that I don’t often consider in life: to what extent is it moral to have allow utilitarian considerations to drive procreation? For an outlandish example to make the point, we might conclude that what the world needs most is a viable way for humans to live in oceanic environments. If tek advances during the next 20 years to create bloodstream nanobots that can extract oxygen from sea water at a much greater efficiency than hemoglobin do, we might want to engineer human gills to enable the use of such tek. Would it be morally “right” to engineer the biological parts needed to have water-breathing humans? As a society, we might conclude the answer to be “yes,” but it’s a “yes” that gives me pause, as it requires me to decide — without the other’s meaningful consent — what another’s existence should be like.

    As a practical matter, we do that every day with respect to non-humans, ranging from factory-raised hogs to neutered/spayed dogs. But we shield our consciences from those decisions by declaring those utilitiarian-driven decisions as largely morality-irrelevant. (Of course, we’ve done that for various categories of humans, in the past, as well.) This situation is bound to become more complicated as we engender not only modified humans, but intelligence-enhanced non-humans, as well.

    2) Given your answer to #1, would it be morally OK to alter a child so that it didn’t have homosexuality?

    Yes, if done for the right reasons. I can imagine many, many reasons that I believe would be immoral ones for pursuing such a treatment strategy.

    3) Does your answer change if its the biological environment in the womb being altered and not the child’s genes?

    Yes, because it would require the consent of the “biological environment” (which I infer to be the mother’s body, in your question).

    4) Does your answer change if the question is applied to an adult who is deciding whether to undergo treatment themselves?

    Yes. I tend to think that informed consent by those capable of consent is much better than societal dictates of what changes one can or cannot perform on oneself.

  14. Adam Greenwood on June 29, 2006 at 12:15 pm

    “Yes, if done for the right reasons. I can imagine many, many reasons that I believe would be immoral ones for pursuing such a treatment strategy.”

    I would be curious to see examples.

    “Would it be morally “rightâ€? to engineer the biological parts needed to have water-breathing humans? As a society, we might conclude the answer to be “yes,â€? but it’s a “yesâ€? that gives me pause, as it requires me to decide — without the other’s meaningful consent — what another’s existence should be like.”

    This is a fascinating example. What this exercise has done for me is to show the extent to which parents radically shape children’s possibilities already.

    “Yes, because it would require the consent of the “biological environmentâ€? (which I infer to be the mother’s body, in your question). ”

    We’re talking morality, not legality. Of course the parents are ‘consenting,’ because it is the morality of their *choice* that we are concerned with.

    “I tend to think that informed consent by those capable of consent is much better than societal dictates of what changes one can or cannot perform on oneself.”

    Again, you are switching to talking about legality. I’m interested in knowing if there are any changes an adult could make on himself that would be morally OK, but not all right for parents to do on their unborn child.

  15. bbell on June 29, 2006 at 12:19 pm

    “I’m interested in knowing if there are any changes an adult could make on himself that would be morally OK,”

    Adam are you getting at plastic surgery? Related things like Botox? its really hard to draw the line here. Is Botox OK but not Breast implants etc…

  16. Seth R. on June 29, 2006 at 12:20 pm

    Adam,

    Although I have never had the slightest inclination to homosexuality, I think I have already struggled with this issue in my life.

    I was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) as a child. I have struggled with it throughout high school, on my mission, through college, through law school, and now. I know some people think it’s overdiagnosed, but I do not. Besides, I’m a pretty clear-cut case. I’ve struggled with the negative self-labels my entire life. I’ve been frustrated in my goals and ambitions time and time again. I’ve beat my head against a mental wall through my entire education. I’ve felt lazy, stupid, faithless, uncaring, embarassed, and angry on countless occasions (and often all at the same time). I’ve disappointed people I looked up to, disappointed myself, and generally felt alienated from the pervasive Mormon work ethic and drive for excellence.

    We had a brief period in middle school where we tried some medication, which didn’t work out very well. My mom gave up on medication after that. My parents tried sending me to a number of counseling avenues and learning programs, none of which worked at all. My dad always insisted that I wasn’t trying hard enough and just needed some motivation and organization. Maybe he was right, maybe not. I really don’t know.

    But I hear these success stories of people who took the medication (which has changed a lot since the 1980s of my childhood) and had a dramatic turnaround. And I think: “hey, maybe I could do that. Maybe I could take a pill and just improve” (although most experts agree that mere medication is not the most effective treatment approach).

    But then I wonder what exactly, it is I’m improving for. I wonder if ADD are really just walking illustrations of a pathologically screwed up and sedentary society. Maybe the ADD people are just having an honest reaction to a society that is deeply wrong, and profoundly destructive to human identity. Was I supposed to change who I am just so I could be a “good K-12 student” (which is just code for a kid who sits down, shuts up, and does well on ridiculous standardized tests)? Maybe I’m not the messed up one here. Maybe it’s everyone else!

    Or maybe not …

    But having ADD also seems to have its benefits. I’ve actually enjoyed the periods of intense hyperfocusing that can often yield extraordinary feats of intellectual acheivement.

    But not reliably, that’s the problem …

    I also heard one expert on ADD opine that ADD people are actually simply ideal “hunters” stuck in a society dominated and defined by “gatherers.” An intense and pervasive distractability, combined with a paradoxical ability to focus in with laser-like intesity for hours on end, would have been ideal for stalking a deer in the forest (and avoiding getting eaten by bears). But it doesn’t lend well to the drudgery of picking berries, or cultivating fields, or tallying accounts. So maybe it IS a one-sided society that’s wrong, and I’m not deficient at all!

    Or maybe not …

    So … Do I try medication for this? Do I change a chemical paradigm that has defined me for three decades of my life? Would I still retain the things I like about ADD after the medication, but now with an additional benefit of being able to pay attention and stay on task more easily? Would I finally be able to accomplish what I want out of life?

  17. Kaimi Wenger on June 29, 2006 at 12:44 pm

    Really fascinating question, Adam.

    As a quick aside, it reverses some of the current ideas in the debate on nurture-nature. Current thinking — heavily oversimplified — is that many conservatives think homosexuality is just a lifestyle choice and so gays need to just make better choices, while many liberals think that homosexuality is an innate characteristic that shouldn’t be suppressed. But this post points out the obvious rejoinder — if homosexuality is proven to be innate, it’s not that conservatives will suddenly say “oh, it’s innate, that’s okay then, go ahead and be gay.” Rather, they’ll ask this question. If it’s innate, should it be “fixed”?

    I see a few reasons why not. As you note, our attractions and desires form a really big part of our personality. This really seems to be tinkering with the _personhood_ of the fetus, in a way that normal parental prodding does not. It’s one thing to say “you’d better not be gay, or you won’t inherit the family home from me.” It’s another thing to tinker with someone’s genetic makeup.

    We make the moral choices that we make — including our ideas on homosexuality — as informed beings. It’s possible that our children will have different ideas. We can nudge here or there, but we have to let them develop their own ideas. Otherwise, we’re merely puppeteers. Which leads me to think this would be wrong. Also, it seems to go against Joseph Smith’s injunction about teaching men correct principles, and letting them govern themselves.

    It’s a sensitive issue. Either way you’re going to have people who feel betrayed by the choice. You can no doubt find many members of the church for whom homosexual tendency has been an awful curse — people who live with terrible shame and self-doubt, feel completely ostracized by their peers, who would wish that someone had changed them in utero. You can also find church members for whom this is an important part of their spiritual development and character. And probably, every shade in between.

    In a perfect world, perhaps we’d know which kids would draw strength and develop from this trait, and which ones would just suffer horribly. If we knew this, a utilitarian calculus would tell us to alter the latter group, and leave the former alone. But we don’t know, ex ante, where a particular child will fall. Which is why I think utilitarian arguments — this will help lots of people, or this will hurt lots of people — probably fail.

  18. Frank McIntyre on June 29, 2006 at 1:12 pm

    Kaimi,

    Could you broaden your comment a little? Would prediliction for alcoholism fall in the same camp or different? What about down’s syndrome?

    I guess I am trying to figure out how much of your view (if any) is based on perhaps you are not sure homosexuality will be considered wrong in 30 years. I might be off base, I am just trying to understand this:

    “We make the moral choices that we make — including our ideas on homosexuality — as informed beings. It’s possible that our children will have different ideas.”

    Is that right?

  19. Matt Evans on June 29, 2006 at 1:21 pm

    “I don’t think we can say our physical element isn’t really *us* because of the defects in it.”

    I’m not arguing that our defects don’t mold our identity, only that they aren’t essential, just as someone’s spiritual falibility isn’t essential to theirs. (We all agree we need open our spirits to the master surgeon, nevermind our identity being partly built on our egos, short-tempers, etc.) In the same way, I believe, we’re under obligation to cure defects where we can, whether spiritual or physical.

    I’ve heard that many deaf people say they enjoy being deaf, much like your Christian lesbian friend who’s ambivalent about her condition, but I tend to view that response as manifesting a typical coping mechanism from social psychology. (Saying “I wanted to do that,” whether consciously or subconsciously, steels us from the irresolvable pain of regret and envy.) Like being deaf, being lesbian injects one into a close-knit community defined by a distinction, and questions about choosing to be straight, or having sound hearing, would, inevitably make one feel as though they were, in some sense, abandoning their loved ones and losing the sense of solidarity.

    A useful exercise would be to compare the moral propriety of preventing, in utero, genetic (or environmental) deafness versus genetic (or environmental) homosexuality.

  20. Eric James Stone on June 29, 2006 at 1:38 pm

    Deafness is a defect.

    That doesn’t mean deaf people aren’t human, of course. Neither does it mean they should be treated as less human than those who have a sense of hearing. There are people who are deaf but who have gone on to to great things — in some cases motivated by their deafness.

    Of course, there are some deaf people who seem to define their essential being by their deafness. They insist that deafness is not a defect.

    But no matter how much we love and appreciate deaf people, it doesn’t change the fact that they do not have something that, by design, they are supposed to have: hearing. (The ears weren’t put there just to keep hats from sliding down too far, after all.)

    From a gospel perspective, we believe that when we are resurrected, our bodies will be made whole. That would presumably include correcting defects one is born with. (Recall that Jesus healed the man who was born blind, rather than say, “He was born that way, so that’s the way he’s meant to be.”)

    So I don’t think correcting those defects through medical science in advance of the resurrection is problematic.

    If a child’s genes showed it was going to be born deaf, I see nothing morally wrong with changing that.

    On the other hand, from the gospel perspective, I do see something morally wrong with deaf parents who are so adamant about there being nothing wrong with deafness that they purposely try to concieve deaf children. (Note that there is a moral difference between deaf parents knowing that there is a possibility or even a certainty that a child they concieve will be deaf, and intentionally choosing for the child to be deaf when it could have been avoided.)

    Now that I’ve offended the zealots of deafness, it’s time for me to offend the zealots of homosexuality.

    Homosexuality is a defect.

    That doesn’t mean homosexual people aren’t human, of course. Neither does it mean they should be treated as less human than those who are heterosexual. There are people who are homosexual but who have gone on to to great things — in some cases motivated by their homsexuality.

    Of course, there are some homosexual people who seem to define their essential being by their deafness. They insist that homosexuality is not a defect.

    But no matter how much we love and appreciate homosexual people, it doesn’t change the fact that they do not have something that, by design, they are supposed to have: hearing. (The reproductive organs weren’t put there just to provide sexual pleasure, after all.)

    From a gospel perspective, we believe that when we are resurrected, our bodies will be made whole. That would presumably include correcting defects one is born with. (Recall that Jesus healed the man who was born blind, rather than say, “He was born that way, so that’s the way he’s meant to be.”)

    So I don’t think correcting those defects through medical science in advance of the resurrection is problematic.

    If a child’s genes showed it was going to be born homosexual, I see nothing morally wrong with changing that.

    On the other hand, from the gospel perspective, I do see something morally wrong with homosexual parents who are so adamant about there being nothing wrong with homosexuality that they purposely try to concieve homosexual children. (Note that there is a moral difference between homosexual parents knowing that there is a possibility or even a certainty that a child they concieve will be homosexual, and intentionally choosing for the child to be homosexual when it could have been avoided.)

  21. Eric James Stone on June 29, 2006 at 1:42 pm

    CORRECTION: One of my sentences above should read:
    But no matter how much we love and appreciate homosexual people, it doesn’t change the fact that they do not have something that, by design, they are supposed to have: attraction to the opposite sex.

    The perils of cut & paste.

  22. Seth R. on June 29, 2006 at 1:42 pm

    Being raised an American is a “defect.”

  23. greenfrog on June 29, 2006 at 1:49 pm

    “Yes, because it would require the consent of the “biological environment� (which I infer to be the mother’s body, in your question). �

    We’re talking morality, not legality. Of course the parents are ‘consenting,’ because it is the morality of their *choice* that we are concerned with.

    I see. I’d respond to the question “Yes, if done for a moral reason.”

    “I tend to think that informed consent by those capable of consent is much better than societal dictates of what changes one can or cannot perform on oneself.�

    Again, you are switching to talking about legality. I’m interested in knowing if there are any changes an adult could make on himself that would be morally OK, but not all right for parents to do on their unborn child.

    Sure, lots and lots. I don’t think parents should tattoo their children. I think it’s ok for adults to tattoo themselves. Same with circumcision (to pick a topic likely to engender outrage). I don’t differentiate on this kind of dimension between physical changes and what we usually think of as more “non-physical” changes. For example, I think it would be wrong for parents to coerce their child to become a lawyer. I wouldn’t object to the child choosing to become one, once the child can make the decision for him/herself. If a family has a particularly virulent form of genetically inherited cancer that doesn’t manifest itself until well into adulthood, I think it would be immoral for the parents to have the particular organ likely to be afflicted by that cancer removed as a precaution before any cancer appears, while I don’t think it would be immoral for the person to elect such a precautionary procedure as an adult.

    I really have a hard time thinking of any kind of change that would be immoral for an adult to choose for her/himself, so I may not be the target audience for this question.

  24. greenfrog on June 29, 2006 at 1:55 pm

    One more passing thought, just to keep the pot stirred: as we contemplate the ability to re-craft humanity and the moral issues pertaining to such efforts, we might want to pause to consider whether our binary notions of gender and the reproductive practices we have developed based on those notions might not also be a lot more plastic ten and twenty and thirty years from now than they are today.

    So while I think the original post is an interesting thought experiment, I suspect that it will be surpassed by our technology shortly.

    If Nature, via evolution, has been able to develop the many, many forms of reproduction and sexuality that we find in the world around us, imagine what forms creative human minds will devise. Female/male heterosexuality is only one of many alternatives.

  25. MikeInWeHo on June 29, 2006 at 1:59 pm

    Deafness is a defect.
    Homosexuality is a defect.

    While you may be able to put those two side-by-side comfortably, the majority of Americans do not. I’m not sure even most conservative Mormons would reach a conclusion that simplistic. From a secular perspective, homosexuality is a naturally occurring behavioral variation that is in no way a defect. Just because that statement clashes with some people’s morality doesn’t change anything.

    For what it’s worth, I find some of these posts deeply disturbing. The whole string is a little creepy and smacks of eugenics. Adam’s choice of homosexuality as the topic is almost a threadjack from the git-go, and needlessly provocative.

  26. Eric James Stone on June 29, 2006 at 2:01 pm

    > Being raised an American is a “defect.�

    If it is, then it will be corrected in the resurrection.

  27. Adam Greenwood on June 29, 2006 at 2:22 pm

    “I’m not arguing that our defects don’t mold our identity, only that they aren’t essential, just as someone’s spiritual falibility isn’t essential to theirs. (We all agree we need open our spirits to the master surgeon, nevermind our identity being partly built on our egos, short-tempers, etc.) In the same way, I believe, we’re under obligation to cure defects where we can, whether spiritual or physical.”

    This is my gut instinct too. But let me press you on it a little bit. When does something cease to be a defect? Severe mental retardation is a defect. If we can fix that genetically, you and I would. And so on up the intelligence scale. but if your child will have normal intelligence, why not make them smarter? My instinct is that you probably shouldn’t, but I don’t have a good reason for it. Perhaps anything less than maximum possible intelligence, physical health, beauty, and temperament is a ‘defect.’

  28. Adam Greenwood on June 29, 2006 at 2:26 pm

    “What if we found that a propensity for anger or laziness (which I mention because they are the two temptations that I struggle with most) were found to be the result of conditions of the womb enviroment? Would we be justified in ‘fixing’ that?”

    Julie Smith,

    I’m pressing Matt E.’s intuitions a little, though I share them, so let me do the same to yours, sharing them also as I do. It’s clear that temptations and problems are what we are here for. If we had no temptations and challenges, we couldn’t grow. But we fix and avoid temptations and problems all the time, and the scriptures and prophets appear to approve. In fact, fixing and avoiding is part of the way in which we learn and grow. If we didn’t fix and avoid, the plan would be frustrated. So the question surely is, how can we even begin to know when we have started to fix problems to such an extent that the plan is frustrated?

  29. mullingandmusing (m&m) on June 29, 2006 at 2:30 pm

    1) How do we determine when it is morally OK to alter a child’s genetic make-up?

    2) Given your answer to #1, would it be morally OK to alter a child so that it didn’t have homosexuality?

    I haven’t read all the posts, so if this is a repeat, please forgive me.

    It seems to me one of the key factors would be knowing fairly certainly that the problem we are trying to fix is truly a genetic problem. Spina bifida might be a good example of this. Given the fact that there is still so much debate about the mix of genetic predisposition and cultural influences, I would not be comfortable manipulating anything in utero re: homosexuality without a firm knowledge and a lot less fuzziness about the “causes” of homosexuality.

    This gives much to mull over in terms of where the benefits of modern science end and the game of “playing God” begins. I don’t think we are supposed to remove all possible sources of pain, struggle, etc. But I do believe we have been blessed tremendously through science and increased knowledge to make our existence more comfortable, longer, more healthy, etc. But my gut starts to feel strange when things are taken “to an extreme.” Of course, the trick is figuring out where that line is.

  30. Adam Greenwood on June 29, 2006 at 2:32 pm

    Greenfrog,

    If I may, you’re saying that what you conceive to be morally neutral choices are the kind that the parents should leave to the child? Genetically speaking, hair color, etc? Environmentally, things like occupation? So its ok for parents to mold their child to get and education an seek after knowledge, because this is morally good, but not ok to mold the child to become a lawyer, because this is morally neutral.

    Query: what if the choices were easily reversible? The hypotheticals you offer of tattoos and organ removal are pretty obviously choices that, once made, are difficult to unmake. What if they weren’t?

  31. Adam Greenwood on June 29, 2006 at 2:36 pm

    Matt E., Eric J. Stone,

    I’m not so sure that homosexuality is easily categorizable as purely a defect. If some kinds of homosexuality manifest themselves hormonally and in brain chemistry, its almost inevitable that homosexuality is going to include a number of different traits, not just same-sex attraction.

  32. mullingandmusing (m&m) on June 29, 2006 at 2:37 pm

    But no matter how much we love and appreciate deaf people, it doesn’t change the fact that they do not have something that, by design, they are supposed to have: hearing. (The ears weren’t put there just to keep hats from sliding down too far, after all.)

    That phrase, “by design,” is interesting. This gets to my previous post. How do we know that God’s design included all of us having perfect bodies. I don’t believe that. I believe that God’s design has included “defects” and weaknesses and disabilities…at least to some degree. Again, I believe He wants us to make improvements, but I’m hard pressed to think that He wants us to remove all possible defects. It’s our trials that usually help our spirits grow the most. In terms of the gospel, what we struggle with physically doesn’t need to be removed, and, in fact, often ends up being something that furthers our spiritual growth. Again, though, I am certainly not an advocate of not seeking for ways to improve things, so, what to do?

  33. Adam Greenwood on June 29, 2006 at 2:39 pm

    “From a secular perspective, homosexuality is a naturally occurring behavioral variation that is in no way a defect. Just because that statement clashes with some people’s morality doesn’t change anything.”

    I’m not sure what ‘secular perspective’ you have in mind, but this is a thread for exploring the ramifications of orthodox LDS perspectives, and the ground rules have been crafted to that end. Please respect the ground rules.

  34. Kaimi Wenger on June 29, 2006 at 2:56 pm

    Even assuming that homosexuality is always wrong – ground rules of Adam’s post – it’s unclear that we should alter it. From a gospel perspective, an Ether 12 perspective, perhaps some people are born with same-sex attraction in order to later become strong in that area – right? In which case, removing that tendency would be counterproductive.

  35. Adam Greenwood on June 29, 2006 at 2:59 pm

    I agree with your perspective completely, Kaimi W., but it also seems to me that the gospel also allows for us fixing trials, even if folks might be stronger if they struggle with them instead of getting fixed. Medical depression, e.g.

    I have no idea where the one perspective applies and where the other does.

  36. Kaimi Wenger on June 29, 2006 at 3:00 pm

    Follow up question, Adam. From a gospel perspective, it is wrong to leave our church to join another church.

    So, let’s say that we can isolate a gene for Catholic-ness. At that point, should we alter that gene so as to better innoculate our children from Catholic-ness? (And suppose that a gene is found for Mormon-ness — should Catholics alter that gene in _their_ children?)

    That is to say: How much of this debate depends on our ideas of _defect_, and how much depends on our ideas of _sin_? If a person decides to alter a fetus in utero, is she doing this because she sees homosexuality as a _defect_, or because she sees it as a _sin_?

  37. mullingandmusing (m&m) on June 29, 2006 at 3:01 pm

    If Nature, via evolution, has been able to develop the many, many forms of reproduction and sexuality that we find in the world around us, imagine what forms creative human minds will devise. Female/male heterosexuality is only one of many alternatives.

    Isn’t this one perfect explanation about why our prophets care so much about defining marriage and sexuality the way it is supposed to be defined, i.e., the way God wants things to be? If Adam is trying to define moral limits, I think this is an example of where those limits are already being crossed.

  38. Adam Greenwood on June 29, 2006 at 3:13 pm

    Kaimi W., its hard for me to think through your question on Catholicism because it seems so unlikely–too many assumptions of mine would be upended if that were the case.

    As to the defect vs. sin distinction you’re making, you seem to be suggesting that people would have to see homosexuality as a sin in order to ‘fix’ it. I don’t see that this follows. I can think of lots of things that are clearly defects, not sins, that I would want to fix in my children. You may be saying that its OK for parents to fix tendencies if they think they’re defects, but not if they think they are sins. I can accept that, but it doesn’t help me any, since I don’t see homosexuality itself as a sin. In fact, I have a hard time seeing how any biological impulse itself could be a sin.

    You may be trying to make a distinction between biological conditions that limit possibilities (e.g., spina bifida) and those that make sin more likely (e.g., homosexuality), and saying that the first can be fixed but the second can’t. I would like to see more of a rationale for the distinction, but there may be something there. On the other hand, you’d need to be very careful about assigning biological conditions to each category. For example, while homosexuality does make certain kinds of sin more likely, it also limits possibilities in that it makes it harder to have a happy marriage and natural children. (So maybe the distinction between these two types of conditions collapses after all.)

  39. Frank McIntyre on June 29, 2006 at 3:19 pm

    Kaimi,

    It seems to me that if you use Ether 12 in this way as the basis of your argument, you are essentially ruling out just about all interference since God can make weak things strong — which is a coherent position and may be the right one, I’m just curious if this is what you wish to say.

    In fact, that argument would suggest we should not even be looking to remove or ameliorate any disadvantage– genetic or environmental. So I think it needs some refining because the strong version is simply too strong to be in line with the gospel.

  40. Julie M. Smith on June 29, 2006 at 3:20 pm

    Re Adam in #29:

    I think I would draw a distinction between fixing and avoiding temptations for ourselves and doing it on behalf of others. I suppose if I lived in a home with no electricty, I could be completely assured that my kids wouldn’t consume porn, but they also wouldn’t experience any spiritual growth from having made the decision themselves to refuse porn. Of course, this isn’t a perfect example, because I don’t leave porn web sites open on the laptop so my kids can have a chance to refuse it. I guess I’m with what Kaimi said in #35, but I also recognize that this is A Fine Line, and a tough issue all around.

  41. Adam Greenwood on June 29, 2006 at 3:26 pm

    Julie,
    do you think its wrong for parents to have filters on their internet access?

  42. greenfrog on June 29, 2006 at 3:29 pm

    If I may, you’re saying that what you conceive to be morally neutral choices are the kind that the parents should leave to the child? Genetically speaking, hair color, etc? Environmentally, things like occupation? So its ok for parents to mold their child to get and education and seek after knowledge, because this is morally good, but not ok to mold the child to become a lawyer, because this is morally neutral.

    Hm. I hadn’t crystallized my thinking process along this dimension, so I’m not sure about it, though you may be right (about my thinking). Obviously, I’ll need to think more about it. If asked at this moment to distinguish between decisions that parents can and should make and those that they should leave to the (born or unborn) child to make later? I suppose the answer comes down to a couple of principles: 1. Anything that the child can choose for her/himself at the age of self-determination/consent should not be decided by the parents. 2. For those decisions that cannot be left until the age of consent (for whatever reason), then I think that the parents should be permitted to (and morally should) make the decision for the child. As we’re currently constructed, if education is postponed until a person reaches the age of 18, it’s not going to be as successful as if it starts early. So parents should foster their child’s education, even if s/he expresses extreme dissatisfaction with it. (I’ve got teenagers — several of them.)

    Query: what if the choices were easily reversible? The hypotheticals you offer of tattoos and organ removal are pretty obviously choices that, once made, are difficult to unmake.

    I’d think that for most changes, “completely reversible” would require rewiring brain cells, in addition to whatever more overtly physical characteristics are involved. I tend to think that we over-draw the clarity of the lines between bodies and minds. But to respond directly to the question: if the changes were completely reversible, then I think that the moral balance between the child’s self-determination and the parents’ beliefs about what would improve the child’s (or, let’s face it, the parents’) life would tip more toward the parents’ beliefs, since the child would be able to undo the changes upon reaching the age of consent.

    What if they weren’t?

    If they’re not (and in the world I live in today, particularly with my views of minds nad bodies, none of them are), then the parents should act only with the greatest caution, study, and prayer as they go about changing inalterably their children’s lives. (But then, that’s what parents do. My wife and I are still looking for the operating manual for our kids. If you’ve seen it lying around, please let me know. I’ll check the lost-and-founds.)

  43. Jeff M. on June 29, 2006 at 3:42 pm

    As much as I love hypotheticals, I always feel the need to ground answers in realities and complexities. If medical science were to devise a procedure which could selectively identify “pre-homosexual” fetuses and selectively “reorient” them, with absolute certainty that nothing else in that fetus would be altered, then I believe the standard could be reasonably left up to parents.

    However, what is far more likely would be a treatment which is more like giving a mother hormones at a certain point in gestation which in addition to “masculinizing her unborn son” might also stunt his brain in other areas. So, what if a mother could take a pill during pregnancy (similar to taking folate to prevent spina pifida) which would eliminate the chance of your child becoming homosexual but would also drop his IQ by 20 points, or increase his heterosexual libido to the brink of control, or cause him to have an explosive temper?

    The point of my comment is just to inject a more realism into the scenario. To carefully think through a very isolated and clean question might confuse a future choice which is far less isolated and clean.

    Another line of questions: What are the chances scientists would have a 100% success rate in genetic swapping? What are the ethical considerations to even start trying something like this? What do we do with the failed attempts, which may have severe and very bizarre defects? What if you were told your child would have a very high likelihood toward homosexual behavior, and there is a procedure which can fix it, but 10% of the time the wrong gene is swapped and your son would not only have gay tendencies, but would also have a severe facial deformity?

    Now that my real concerns are transparent, I present my answers to the four questions from the top:
    1/2) In medicine, ethical standards are usually based on risk and benefit assessment. Therefore, I believe a reasonable response to the morality of altering genes to prevent homosexual tendencies would be as follows: Determine the accuracy of the genetic test, the cost/success rate/risks/untoward effects of the procedure, and proceed from that point. Without a complete understanding of each factor, parents would potentially be able to do much more harm to their child than good.

    3) The procedure aimed at altering the intrauterine environment would almost certainly be less invasive and less focused than a targeted genetic swap. So, you would have a lower risk of harm in doing the procedure, but you would also have more untoward effects to the fetus and a lower success rate.

    4) The difference between parents choosing for an unborn fetus and an adult making a decision for himself/herself is big. Realistically, I don’t think a gene swap would work in adulthood, since numerous complicating factors would have arisen in the person’s life by that time. For parents to make a decision like that for an unborn child would be hard to defend if there was any serious risk involved in the procedure.

    Mostly unrelated, but very interesting: There was a case several years ago where a couple had a child with Fanconi anemia (which can be fatal, but can be cured by a bone marrow transplant from a perfect donor). They had no intention of having more children, but decided to undergo in vitro fertilization to have a child who would be a perfect donor. They upped their odds at a perfect match by only having those embryos with a perfect genetic match inserted. The result: for several thousand dollars they created a second child for themselves and a perfect match for their daughter, who was successfully cured of her disease. Was this ethical?

  44. Julie M. Smith on June 29, 2006 at 3:44 pm

    Adam,

    No, I don’t, and I see where you are going with this: we _do_ make choices to limit the temptations that our children face, and that is right and good. I still lean toward thinking it wrong to take away a tendency toward homosexuality, but will freely admit that I cannot articulate why right now.

  45. Eric James Stone on June 29, 2006 at 3:46 pm

    > I’m not so sure that homosexuality is easily categorizable as purely a defect. If some kinds
    > of homosexuality manifest themselves hormonally and in brain chemistry, its almost
    > inevitable that homosexuality is going to include a number of different traits, not just same-
    > sex attraction.

    Adam,

    I don’t see your point here. Let’s assume for a moment that being deaf leads automatically to enhancement of other senses. Let’s even assume that such enhancements allow a deaf person to do things a hearing person can’t. That doesn’t mean deafness isn’t a defect, because humans are supposed to be able to hear.

    From the LDS perspective, no matter what other things might be enhanced by the biochemistry resulting in homosexuality, same sex attraction is a defect because our aspiration is supposed to be eternal marriage to someone of the opposite sex. In that context, it makes no more sense to believe that homosexuals will be resurrected as homosexuals than to believe that deaf people will be resurrected deaf.

    While in this life, deaf people may need to accept the fact that they are deaf, but they should not make deafness such an important part of their identity that they would believe it wrong of God to resurrect them with hearing.

    Similarly, while in this life homosexual people may need to accept the fact that they are attracted to the same sex, they should not make it the central fact of their identity.

    We are sent here to earth to be tested, and our defects — whether physical, mental, or emotional — are part of that test. We are not supposed to embrace those defects and define ourselves by them.

  46. Seth R. on June 29, 2006 at 3:54 pm

    I think Ether 12 makes it clear that at least some weaknesses are actually “essential” for us. Without them, humility would be impossible.

    I wouldn’t wager a guess at which ones though.

  47. Eric James Stone on June 29, 2006 at 4:02 pm

    Well, if we ever reach the point where all genetic weaknesses can be eliminated without causing other weaknesses, then we’ll have to deal with the question of whether having no weaknesses is a weakness in itself. Until then, I think we need not worry about whether correcting genetic problems will deprive our children of being tested in this life.

  48. Adam Greenwood on June 29, 2006 at 4:20 pm

    “I still lean toward thinking it wrong to take away a tendency toward homosexuality, but will freely admit that I cannot articulate why right now. ”

    Fair enough. All I’ve got here are intuitions too.

  49. Adam Greenwood on June 29, 2006 at 4:27 pm

    “Adam,

    I don’t see your point here. Let’s assume for a moment that being deaf leads automatically to enhancement of other senses”

    The enhancement is a result of the deafness, but not intrinsic to it. Whereas I’m suggesting that what we call homosexuality is not just same-sex attraction, but deeply influences brain chemistry and thus, in an unique way, personality and attributes. Could be wrong.

    Let me say it another way: the body of Christ has hands, feet, and so on. It may be that whatever allows certain people to be feet has in this life the unfortunate side-effect of giving them same-sex attraction. We can eliminate the attraction by eliminating the footness, but the body of Christ is impoverished thereby.

  50. greenfrog on June 29, 2006 at 5:26 pm

    I hope this isn’t too far from the main current of this discussion, if it is, please disregard.

    One of my favorite stories is told by a Buddhist who teaches meditation. He lectured his students one day about the Buddha’s teaching that life entails suffering. He related to his students that as they sat in meditation, they would experience discomforts that could lead them to the mental state of suffering. When they experienced that suffering, they should not avoid it, but should be interested in it, pay attention to it, and notice its characteristics, but they should try to remain separate from it, as observers, rather than fully participating in it. After the lecture, the class sat in meditation. The teacher advised students regarding posture, as sitting with a rounded spine tends to create back problems that can be avoided by sitting straighter.

    After class, a student approached the teacher privately. She said something to the effect of, “I listened to your teachings about the value of observing suffering. But when I sit on my meditation cushion, I don’t really have any physical discomforts, so I don’t experience the kind of suffering you described. Should I sit “wrong” so that it is more uncomfortable for me?” The teacher responded, “Life will supply all the suffering each soul needs to learn from. You don’t have to create it artificially.”

  51. greenfrog on June 29, 2006 at 5:38 pm

    One other passing note — I found the sequence on T&S website of this posting and Nate’s posting on the characteristics of males to be interesting.

    A question the sequence of posts prompts that could be explored on this thread: assuming (as I do) that Nate Oman is correct that males really are responsible for a large percentage of the antisocial behavior manfested in the world (ranging from unpleasantness to murder to warfare to genocide), and further assuming that some kind of genetic/gestational intervention could reduce the severity of those tendencies, should parents undertake those interventions?

  52. Eric James Stone on June 29, 2006 at 6:00 pm

    OK, Adam, I understand your point now (I think).

    As a facetious example, let’s assume good fashion sense and the ability to appreciate show tunes are biochemically associated with same-sex attraction. You’re saying that since good fashion sense and show tune appreciation are good things, same-sex attraction cannot be considered a defect because it is associated with them.

    That’s like saying that sickle-cell anemia cannot be considered a defect because it is associated with resitance to malaria. Resistance to malaria is a good thing. But if you could have the resistance to malaria without the anemia, then obviously you would fix the anemia. The anemia in and of itself is a defect — it is only the associated trait of malaria resistance that is good.

  53. Adam Greenwood on June 29, 2006 at 6:04 pm

    But the trait of malaria resistance *is* associated. I agree with what you say, I’m just suggesting that there may not be ways to have the other attributes of homosexuality without the same-sex attraction. A better example than anemia is probably something like autism in some of its forms.

  54. greenfrog on June 29, 2006 at 6:10 pm

    MikeInWeHo,

    Though I may have misunderstood the purpose of this thread (and I’m probably over-participating my welcome, even if I’ve got it right), my last post was made with your point in mind. I think there is a much stronger justification for interventions to reduce the occurrence of male-pattern violence than for interventions to reduce the occurrence of homosexuality within a given population.

    Even so, I’d speculate that most (male) folk would oppose such interventions, as they probably tend to view their essential “maleness” as too integral to their sense of self to justify letting someone else tamper with it.

  55. Adam Greenwood on June 29, 2006 at 6:16 pm

    Not really comparable, Greenfrog, unless (a) you think that acts of violence are per se wrong, which I don’t, and (b) you are saying that a propensity for physical violence is the only thing there is to essential maleness, which I don’t.

  56. greenfrog on June 29, 2006 at 6:29 pm

    I think that they’re exactly comparable. Some acts (of violence or otherwise) that result from male emotional patterning are wrong, some are not. Some acts of that result from homosexual emotional patterning are wrong, some are not.

    If you question the nature of the latter category, perhaps we should query our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters whether their homosexuality manifests itself only in the act of (for the purposes of this thread) off-limits sex acts. I’ve gleaned from previous discussions that there is a great deal more to homosexuality than a particular set of proscribed actions.

  57. Adam Greenwood on June 29, 2006 at 6:44 pm

    I’m not sure why you think that’s oppositional, Greenfrog, since I’ve also taken the position here that “some acts that result from homosexual emotional patterning are wrong, some not” and suggested this may be a reason to hesitate before changing an unborn child’s genes. In fact, I don’t think anyone here has said anything to the contrary. Eric James Stone has argued for genetic/gestational interventions but he seems to think that the acts that result from homosexual emotional patterning are solely sex acts.

  58. Eric James Stone on June 29, 2006 at 6:59 pm

    Adam,

    Perhaps you are right about some traits (not sure what) that can only be present in someone because biochemically they occur in conjunction with same-sex attraction. But from an LDS perspective, do you think that such a limitation would also apply to resurrected beings — in other words, to resurrect someone with those traits but without same-sex attraction would be beyond God’s power?

    I am only referring to same-sex attraction as a defect, and not any of the associated traits you are speculating about.

    > A better example than anemia is probably something like autism in some of its forms.

    Fine. I’ll go ahead and offend the autism zealots, too. Autism is a defect. And even though autistic people are human and deserve our love and respect in the same way everyone else does, and even though some autistic people may have some mental capabilities that are beyond those of non-autistic people, and even though autism can greatly shape a person’s personality, and even though autism is the result of natural processes, and even though there are a lot of other things one can say to mitigate the fact, it is still a fact that autism is a defect. Something went wrong.

    No mortal person has a perfect body or mind. There is something wrong with each of us. We are not to blame for our imperfections. (At least, not for those we did not cause for ourselves.) But we should not pretend that our defects are not defects.

  59. Adam Greenwood on June 29, 2006 at 7:05 pm

    “But from an LDS perspective, do you think that such a limitation would also apply to resurrected beings — in other words, to resurrect someone with those traits but without same-sex attraction would be beyond God’s power?”

    No.

  60. Tatiana on June 29, 2006 at 7:35 pm

    Even if we reduce all the trials that we can, to the full extent that we can, there will still be trials. That is obvious from comparing the lives of people in western technological civilization with that of humans who are the same species as us (homo sapiens) but live in stone age cultures. We have eliminated from our lives probably 85% of the trials they face, and yet we don’t feel we are lacking trials. Each level we improve just brings a new harder level of trial onto the table for possible improvement. There need be no worry ever of running out of trials.

  61. Adam Greenwood on June 30, 2006 at 12:11 am

    You are more than half-right, Tatiana, but we are partly bodies, and when we get to the point where we don’t really have physical trials, we’ve definitely lost something.

  62. Adam Greenwood on June 30, 2006 at 12:14 am

    Thanks, all, for the insightful discussion. I appreciate your thoughts, your civility, and your keeping to the ground rules.

    If you would like to add something more to this discussion, please email your proposed comment to adam at times and seasons dot org for posting subject to editorial judgment.

WELCOME

Times and Seasons is a place to gather and discuss ideas of interest to faithful Latter-day Saints.