It has become medically possible for women to choose whether to conceive a male or female child – but are there ethical reasons why we should refrain from doing so? The most commonly raised concerns are creating imbalance in the societal ratio of male to female children, and perpetuating discrimination against women. But these aren't the only concerns - what if it fails? If you raise parents' expectations so high (so high they often pay upwards of $11,000 dollars or more for the privilege) that they will have a son, what happens when they find out they're having a happy healthy daughter? A recent Slate article raises another red flag - the enormous pressure on these kids to live up to the gender expectations of their parents ("My husband and I stared at our daughter for that first year").
|(Example of an image intended to evoke negative emotions towards sex selection.)|
|(Example of an image intended to evoke positive thoughts towards sex selection.)|
Trickier are the fertility clinics catering to families seeking purely elective pre-natal sex selection. While they are growing in popularity in the U.S., in many countries they are not only discouraged they are illegal (i.e. Canada, India, Japan, France, Germany...). In countries which have outlawed the practice, they have primarily done so in response to widely held beliefs that female babies are less desirable. This attitude prevails in much of the world.
China offers a troubling example of these ethical tensions. In response to widespread infanticide of female children in response to its one-child birthing policy (estimates of 30-40 million more males than females by 2020: the equivalent of wiping Argentina off the map), China forbids all sex identification of a fetus by "technical means" (I presume this to mean both pre and post natal sex detection techniques). This hasn't worked, of course, because the attitudes continue to exist (the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences predicts that 1/5 of men under 20 will be unable to find mates within the decade). In recognition of the widespread belief that son's are more desirable, and declining female birth rates, enforcement of the one-child policy is often relaxed for rural parents who bear daughters.
But the plot thickens - because in the U.S. we are told that a desire for female children is driving the majority of sex-selection services. At first blush this seemed logical to me - because, although childless, I have always felt that I would prefer to have a daughter. In addition, recent articles making this claim cite anecdotal evidence, such as the prevalence of Google search questions such as "how to have a girl", suggesting that this is the case (i.e. Jasmeet's Sidhu's How to Buy a Daughter?). But many of these stories are in fact stories of what has been labeled 'family-balancing', where women who have a brood of football loving, gun shooting boys are desperate to increase the estrogen in the house. What may be true, is that women are more likely to use family balancing to bear girls, and less likely to use it to bear sons when they already have daughters. There is something about the mother-daughter bond that is impressed upon women from birth, influencing their feelings of loss when they have only sons. But what you don't hear is that in a vacuum, among families who have yet to bear children, American couples prefer boys. Thus, it is impossible to tout female preference as refutation of the claim that sex-selection perpetuates discrimination against women and girls in the U.S. - just as it does abroad.
What's the bottom line? The bottom line is that while the U.S. is still an outlier in this field, where most countries have barred the practice for non-medical use, there is widespread international demand (apparently there are now sex-selection apps). Why do we care? Because eugenics does not have a pretty past, and just as likely it doesn't have a pretty future (i.e. clinics already starting to advertise hair and eye color selection). We shouldn't be taken in by all the hype over family-balancing, and female-dominance. Behind sex-selection practices lies a slippery slope of eugenics - one which at the very least engenders and derives from harmful gender stereotypes about the innate preferences and habits of boys and girls. The bottom line is that we do not know the impact that these practices will have on children, but from this vantage it does not look good.