The increasingly rapid advancement of biotechnology over the past decade points to a future — a very near future — where new drugs change both medicine and society as a whole. Pills will make us larger. Pills will make us small. And the pills that mother gives us will force us to confront some serious ethical questions. One that we’ll have to answer sooner than you might think: Should anti-love drugs be legal?
Current science, coupled with our apparent societal need to pathologize everything, makes an anti-love biotechnology inevitable. And while we can’t pinpoint exactly why (or when) someone falls in love, we do know that it’s a neurobiological phenomenon affected and controlled by chemicals. Researchers have already discovered that lust, the evolutionary component of love, can be halted with drugs like androgen blockers, anti-depressant medications, and oral naltrexone. It’s the first step toward removing cupid’s arrow.
Speculative fiction has time and again demonstrated how the regulation of love via technology could put humanity on a slippery slope. Most recently, the Drake Doremus film Equals captures a world in which emotions are regulated — a nod towards myriad other apathetic dystopias. There is a massive difference between chemically assisting the lovelorn at their behest and having a federal department of setting serotonin standards. Still, politicians and powerful people have a long history of using technologies (think: shock therapy) to regulate sexuality.
But dismissing the usefulness of a love cure is also reductive and cowardly. Suffering for love is an activity glorified in many cultures, but is it really good for us? Consider a world where pedophilia is empathetically treated or where people in abusive relationships break free. Anti-love drugs could be given to people who are afraid of hurting themselves or someone else because of their emotions. The people we love often hurt us — and vice versa — and though we know that, we return for more pain. What if we didn’t?
In their paper “If I Could Just Stop Loving You”, lead author Brian Earp and his fellow University of Oxford co-authors outline four situations in which they believe anti-love drugs should be legal:
1) The love in question is obviously harmful. 2) The user consents to or requests the drug. 3) The drug allows a person to achieve a “higher goal” over “low order feelings.” 4) The user has repeatedly failed to overcome perilous emotions.
In response to Earp’s work, Kristina Gupta — a professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Wake Forest University — writes in the American Journal of Bioethics that one of her major concerns with anti-love technology is that it will threaten “sexual or relationship diversity”. The idea is that people will be less likely to embrace a preference like bisexuality if they can pop a drug to stop their attraction. Gupta argues that if anti-love drugs are created, then the medical professionals prescribing the drugs should be required to provide information about sexual and relationship diversity to their patients, and offer to refer them to the appropriate communities that feel the same.
There’s no doubt that with the inherent danger of anti-love drugs, that this stuff would have to be prescribed. If anti-love drugs pass an FDA review, it will likely take 10 to 12 years for it to make its way to consumers. In all likelihood it will be prescribed in the same way antidepressants currently are.
Earp has written multiple papers detailing how current medications used to treat OCD and depression are already capable of stopping the feelings that come with love — namely, lust. But these methods, as they are now, are a “blunt and haphazard way” to deal with emotion. This definitely means it’s not impossible — the science just isn’t quite there. Scientists have previously demonstrated that you can end the monogamous relationships of voles by curbing dopamine release in males and oxytocin and vasopressin in females. While researchers don’t know if human attachment works off the same hormonal machinery as voles, Earp says that it is plausible.
“Assuming that advances in neuroimaging, neurobiology, brain modeling, and drug delivery continue to hone the effectiveness (and target specificity) of love-diminishing interventions,” writes Earp, “we may one day find ourselves with an array of pills, biochips, and nutraceuticals that could successfully ‘treat’ problematic passions — perhaps even at a low cost and with limited side effects.”