Selected Teachings on
"Born That Way" vs. Choice

Dallin H. Oaks (Quorum of the Twelve)

[W]e should be aware that some people are more susceptible to some addictions than other people. Perhaps such susceptibility is inborn, like the unnamed ailment the Apostle Paul called "a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure" (2 Corinthians 12:7). One person has a taste for nicotine and is easily addicted to smoking. Another person cannot take an occasional drink without being propelled into alcoholism. Another person samples gambling and becomes a compulsive gambler.

Perhaps these persons, as the saying goes, were "born that way." But what does this mean? Does it mean that persons with susceptibilities or strong tendencies have no choice, no *agency in these matters? Our doctrine teaches us otherwise. Regardless of a person's susceptibility or tendency, his will is unfettered. His agency is unqualified. It is his freedom that is impaired. Other persons are more free; though they unwisely sample the temptations, they seem immune to the addiction. But regardless of the extent of our freedom, we are all responsible for the exercise of our agency.

As Lehi taught, in mortality we are only free "according to the flesh" (2 Nephi 2:27). Most of us are born with thorns in the flesh—some more visible, some more serious than others. We all seem to have susceptibilities to one disorder or another, but whatever our susceptibilities, we have the will and the power to control our thoughts and our actions. This must be so. God has said that he holds us accountable for what we do and what we think, so these must be controllable by our agency. Once we have reached the age or condition of accountability, "I was born that way" does not excuse actions or thoughts that fail to conform to the commandments of God. We need to learn how to live so that a weakness that is mortal will not prevent us from achieving the goal that is eternal.

God has promised that he will consecrate our afflictions for our gain (see 2 Nephi 2:2). The efforts we expend in overcoming an inherited weakness build spiritual strength that will serve us throughout eternity. Thus, when Paul prayed thrice that his "thorn in the flesh" would depart from him, the Lord replied, "My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness." Obedient, Paul concluded,

Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.

Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ's sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong. [2 Corinthians 12:9­10]

Whatever our susceptibilities or tendencies, they cannot subject us to eternal consequences unless we exercise our agency to do or think the things forbidden by the commandments of God. For example, a susceptibility to alcoholism impairs its victim's freedom to partake without addiction, but his agency allows him to abstain and thus escape the physical debilitation of alcohol and the spiritual deterioration of addiction.

Eighth, beware the argument that because a person has strong drives toward a particular act that he has no power of choice and therefore no responsibility for his actions. This contention runs counter to the most fundamental premises of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Satan would like us to believe that we are not responsible in this life. That is the result he tried to achieve by his contest in the premortal existence. A person who insists that he is not responsible for the exercise of his agency because he was "born that way" is trying to ignore the outcome of the War in Heaven. We are responsible, and if we argue otherwise, our efforts become part of the propaganda effort of the adversary.

Individual responsibility is a law of life. It applies in the law of man and the law of God. Society holds people responsible to control their impulses so we can live in a civilized society. God holds his children responsible to control their impulses so they can keep his commandments and realize their eternal destiny. The law does not excuse the short-tempered man who surrenders to his impulse to pull a trigger on his tormentor, or the greedy man who surrenders to his impulse to steal, or the pedophile who surrenders to his impulse to satisfy his sexual desires with children.

I suppose it is inevitable that those who have surrendered to impulse would try to use the defense of "irresistible impulse." But in the courts on high, this defense will be transparent to the Great Judge, who sees all our actions and "knows all the thoughts and intents of the heart" (Alma 18:32).

There is much we do not know about the extent of freedom we have in view of the various thorns in the flesh that afflict us in mortality. But this much we do know, we all have our agency, and God holds us accountable for the way we use it in thought and deed. That is fundamental. ("Free Agency and Freedom," BYU Devotional, 11 October 1987; *the word "free" has been removed each time it precedes the word "agency" in this quotation to bring it up to date with the modern usage of this term by the Apostles today; see "Free Agency is Not a Scriptural Term")

In contrast to our doctrinal approach, many persons approach the problems of same-sex attraction solely from the standpoint of current science. While I am not qualified as a scientist, with the aid of scientific literature and with the advice of qualified scientists and practitioners, I will attempt to refute the claim of some that scientific discoveries demonstrate that avowed homosexuals and lesbians were “born that way.”

We live in a time of accelerating scientific discoveries about the human body. We know that our inheritance explains many of our physical characteristics. At the same time, we also know that our behavior is profoundly influenced by psychosocial factors such as parental and sibling relationships (especially during the formative years) and the culture in which we live. The debate over whether, or the extent to which, specific behavior is attributable to “nature” or to “nurture” is centuries old. Its application to the subject of same-sex feelings and behaviors is only one manifestation of a highly complex subject on which scientific knowledge is still in its infancy.

Some scientists deny that behavior is genetically influenced. 8 Others are advocates of evidence or theories suggesting that “there is substantial evidence for genetic influence on sexual orientation.” 9

We are, of course, aware of evidence that inheritance explains susceptibilities to certain diseases like some cancers and some other illnesses like diabetes mellitus. There are also theories and some evidence that inheritance is a factor in susceptibilities to various behavior-related disorders like aggression, alcoholism, and obesity. It is easy to hypothesize that inheritance plays a role in sexual orientation. However, it is important to remember, as conceded by two advocates of this approach, that “the concept of substantial heritability should not be confused with the concept of inevitable heritability.… Most mechanisms probably involve interactions between constitutional predispositions and environmental events.” 10

Wherever they fall along the spectrum between outright rejection and total acceptance of biological determinism of sexual orientation, most scientists concede that the current evidence is insufficient and that firm conclusions must await many additional scientific studies.

A study of fifty-six pairs of identical male twins in which one twin classified himself as “gay” reported that 52 percent of the co-twins also classified themselves as gay. 11 A similar study of female identical twins yielded approximately the same proportion of co-twins who classified themselves as gay (thirty-four of seventy-one pairs, 48 percent). 12 If these studies show some inherited influence on whatever causes a man or woman to classify himself or herself as homosexual or lesbian, it is clear that this influence is not determinative. As a prominent scientist observed, “Even the identical twin of a gay man has a 50 percent or more chance of being heterosexual—even though he has the exact same genes and is reared by the same parents.” 13 We should also note that the results of these studies (and others described below) are based on the subjects’ self-classifications, a shaky foundation for scientific conclusions when “there is still no universally accepted definition of homosexuality among clinicians and behavioral scientists—let alone a consensus regarding its origins.” 14

In any emerging area of knowledge, a new source of evidence is most welcome. In July 1993, Dr. Dean Hamer made worldwide headlines when he announced that he had found “a statistically significant correlation between the inheritance of genetic markers [an identifiable strip of DNA] on chromosomal region Xq28 and sexual orientation in a selected group of … homosexual men and their relatives over age 18.” In other words, “it appears that Xq28 contains a gene that contributes to homosexual orientation in males.” 15 Putting the most positive interpretation on his discovery, Dr. Hamer’s subsequent book concludes:

“We can make only educated guesses about the importance of Xq28 in the population at large. On the high side, the region couldn’t possibly influence more than 67 percent of gay men, the proportion ‘linked’ to this region in our highly selected group of gay siblings. On the low side, if much of homosexuality is caused by environmental factors, or by a large number of interacting genes, Xq28 could account for as little as a few percent of the variation in male sexual orientation. The median range, taken from our linkage data and from the available twin and family studies, suggests that Xq28 plays some role in about 5 to 30 percent of gay men. The broad range of these estimates is proof that much more work remains to be done.” 16

“Some role in about 5 to 30 percent” of self-classified “gay” men surely falls far short of justifying the claim that science has shown that “homosexuality” is “caused by” genetic inheritance. One eminent scientist identified two of the uncertainties:

“What evidence exists thus far of innate biological traits underlying homosexuality is flawed. … Confirmation of genetic research purporting to show that homosexuality is heritable makes clear neither what is inherited nor how it influences sexual orientation.” 17

In their impressive reappraisal of biologic theories of human sexual orientation, Drs. Byne and Parsons of Columbia University’s Department of Psychiatry offer these important cautions and suggestions:

“It is imperative that clinicians and behavioral scientists begin to appreciate the complexities of sexual orientation and resist the urge to search for simplistic explanations, either psychosocial or biologic.

“Conspicuously absent from most theorizing on the origins of sexual orientation is an active role of the individual in constructing his or her identity. … We propose an interactional model in which genes or hormones do not specify sexual orientation per se, but instead bias particular personality traits and thereby influence the manner in which an individual and his or her environment interact as sexual orientation and other personality characteristics unfold developmentally.” 18

This observation, but one of many suggestions from scientists, is particularly persuasive because it takes account of the vital element of individual choice that we know to be a true principle of our mortal condition. ("Same Gender Attraction," Ensign, Oct 1995, 7)