For many years, soon-to-be parents have relied on fertility treatments to start families and raise children without serious genetic disorders. But as Americans become wealthier and medical technology advances, hopeful couples have begun utilizing these treatments simply to choose the gender of their babies, and inadvertently started a heated bioethics debate.
Slate reported last week that pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), as the technique is called, has become a multimillion-dollar industry, and the ethical debate has only grown more intense as a result of this boom in business. Critics contend that allowing parents to pick their baby's sex could have all sorts of devastating consequences. The list includes everything from human trafficking, to enforced celibacy for men, to increased gender discrimination, as the natural ratio of men to women is further skewed.
The predictions are dire, but it's also fair to say they're exaggerated. As it is with many other scientific advances, the concern about sex selection is another example of unwarranted fears jumping ahead of the evidence.
Given the right circumstances, parents choosing the sex of their baby could lead to a gender imbalance in the population, similar to those seen in China and India. But the circumstances aren't right. Surveys from the United Kingdom, Germany, and the United States conducted in 2004 suggest that parents in these developed countries have no strong preference when it comes to the gender of their children, as science writer Ronald Bailey points out.
More recent research confirms the point. A 2006 study published in Fertility and Sterility concludes that sex selection technology "is unlikely to have a significant impact on the natural sex ratio." Doctors who provide these services to parents have also argued that their patients request boys and girls in nearly equal numbers.
Critics have also asserted that sex selection is a form of "high-tech eugenics," as Marcy Darnovsky, director of the Center for Genetics and Society, told Slate last week. The argument is odd, to put it politely, since eugenics involved forcibly preventing certain people from reproducing. Allowing parents to choose the sex of their child hardly seems on par with mass sterilization, as far as ethical concerns go.
Perhaps ironically, sex selection has caused some consternation among some feminists, a group usually known for their vocal support of reproductive freedom. Their objections to gender selection center around the possibility that the practice will encourage gender stereotypes. Girls made to be girls, they say, will face an undue burden to behave a certain way, to take up an interest in fashion instead of basketball, for example. That's certainly a possibility, but the complaint overlooks the fact that males and females are actually different in some important ways, as a lot of research has shown. Given those differences between the sexes, is it really such a bad thing that parents may prefer to raise a girl instead of a boy?
Furthermore, if the arguments for reproductive freedom are strong enough to justify preventing or terminating a pregnancy, then surely they're strong enough to justify women choosing the sex of the children they will raise. If compared, it's rather easy to see that the arguments made in support of sex selection are essentially identical to those made in defense of abortion.
There's no doubt that we need to consider the difficult ethical questions that arise as our ability to manipulate nature improves. But making ominous predictions and restricting personal choice shouldn't be a part of that discussion, at least not without evidence. And in the case of sex selection, the critics have failed to provide any sound reason why the practice should be banned.