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Debate: Pre-selecting sex of children

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Should parents be allowed to select the gender of their offspring?

Background and context

Generations of parents-to-be have hoped and prayed for a baby of a particular gender (often in practice, for a boy, as cultural factors such as restricting inheritance of property and the family name to male heirs, restrictions on female economic activity, and the heavy cost of dowries when daughters are married have all encouraged male preference throughout history).
In some circumstances gender selection has been practised after birth by the abandonment of unwanted infants, a practice which has not entirely died out today in some countries. The development of ultrasound scanners which allow the sex of an unborn child to be determined in the womb has more recently led to selective abortion, especially in China where cultural factors combined with the single-child policy in the 1980s and 1990s to make many families determined to ensure their only child was male. Although ultrasound scanning for sexual selection is illegal, it is widespread in China and the 2000 Census revealed that 117 boys are now born for every 100 Chinese girls. Similar figures for India, although less reliable, also indicate widespread use of (illegal) ultrasound scanning and selective abortion of female foetuses. This topic does not focus upon or attempt to present arguments for selective abortion, but this does provide the context for a more recent and balanced debate - as to whether new methods for selecting the gender of a child at the start of a pregnancy should be allowed. There are two relatively new technological methods of achieving the goal of embryonic gender selection, which has for so long been the stuff of science fiction. These are genetic diagnosis, in which embryos created in a test-tube are analysed before being implanted in the womb, and the MicroSort technique, in which sperm is ‘sorted’ to make it much more likely that the egg is fertilised by a sperm carrying the desired chromosome. Most of the arguments apply to both as they are about whether this practice should be allowed in principle, but the distinction is touched on.

Contents

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Free choice: Do parents have free-choice to select the sex of their children?

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Yes

  • Parents have the reproductive right to select the gender of their children. Parent have reproductive rights that allow them to determine when and where they want to have children. These rights also extend to the kind of upbringing they will create for their children. With these reproductive rights already available, it is important that a right be included to choose the sex of their child.
  • Parents are free to select the gender of children and shape their family Why shouldn’t would-be parents be able to do this, given that no harm is done to others by their decision? Article 16 (1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that: "Men and women of full age… have the right to marry and to found a family." and this right should be understood to cover the right to make decisions over how that family should be formed. "Family balancing" is a choice that parents must have.
  • It is good for parents to be happy with the gender of a child. This is true, for example, when they already have six sons but want a daughter. Guaranteeing (or improving the chances of) a child being of the gender they want means that the child is more likely to fit into the family’s dreams. Why deprive a family of the ability to increase its own happiness in this way?


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No

  • Freedom of choice should not be allowed when it harms children. Freedom of choice is a good principle, but harm is done to others by the practice of sex selection and so it should not be allowed. To summarize, harm is done to babies by making love for them conditional; Harm is done to women by likely furthering their oppression; Harm is done to society by creating setting poor cultural examples and by possibly threatening demographic stability.
  • Sexual selection will reinforce gender stereotypes. Apart from the danger that serious gender imbalances will result (covered in point 3 below), making some sort of sexual selection legal and acceptable will reinforce and legitimise gender stereotypes.
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Child: Will gender selection mean children will be more likely loved by parents?

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Yes

  • Parental gender choices make it more likely their child will be loved. If parents are granted their wish to have a child of a certain gender, they are more likely to be happy and love their child.


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No

  • Gender selection will caste unfair expectations over children. Michael J. Sandel, a political philosopher at Harvard University, quoted in a 2004 Washington Post article. - "Consider the father who wants a boy in the hope of having as a son the athlete he had never been. Suppose the son isn't really interested in sports. What sorts of expectations will burden a child who was designed with certain purposes in mind?"[1]


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Designer babies: Can gender choice avoid a slippery slope to designer babies?

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Yes

  • "Designer baby" fears are exaggerated; all babies are, to some extent, designed. Individuals do not procreate randomly: they choose their partners, and often choose the time of conception according to their own age and prosperity. Parents give so much to children. They invest years of their lives and a large amount of their earnings in their upbringing. Isn’t it fair that in return, they get to decide something like this if they want to? This is an extension of reproductive rights.
  • The technology is not really there to create designer babies. Kathy Hudson, director of the Genetics and Public Policy Center at Johns Hopkins University, quoted in a 2004 Washington Post article. - "The overall concern that we have one foot over the edge of the slippery slope is overstated because of the limited role that individual genes play in complex human traits. There are real biological limits to how much control you can have over the characteristics of your offspring."[2]


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No

  • Gender selection creates a slippery slope to "designer babies" This is an extension of the consumer society. If we allow parents to choose gender, soon some will want to choose eye colour, or hair colour. That is only the beginning. We are, in allowing this, encouraging false ideas of ‘perfection’ – damning those that don’t look a certain way. Furthermore, since of course there’s no justification for allowing such indulgence at public expense, the divide will grow ever-larger between rich and poor, as the rich tailor not only their clothes and belongings to reflect their wealth, but also the bodies of their children. If a "gay gene" is discovered, would parents be permitted to weed out embryos with it, using the technology this proposal would condone? We really should be encouraging the idea that when it comes to children, you get what you are given – otherwise, people will demand more and more ability to change their kids, and be more and more likely to reject their own child when they don’t get exactly what they want…


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Cultures/sexism: Is it sound culturally to allow for gender selection?

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Yes

  • Allowing sex selection enables parents to meet cultural expectations. Some cultures place great importance on having at least one child of a particular gender. We can help realise this aim. We can prevent the trauma and stress of not having a child of a particular gender, which can have negative cultural connotations.
  • Sex selection does not result in parents favoring boys David L. Hill, scientific director of the ART Reproductive Center, quoted in a 2004 Washington Post Article. - "We get roughly the same number of parents coming in who will request a boy as will request a girl. It's not as if everyone is coming in wanting a male."[3]
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No

  • Sexual selection will re-enforce gender discrimination Women are already seen, in the majority of cultures as less valuable than men. Sex selection is not supported by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; its writers did not imagine recent developments but did include rights for equal treatment and status for women, which allowing gender selection would undermine.


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Demographics: Could such a policy avoid demographic problems?

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Yes

  • Gender selection will not result in demographic imbalances. If a state’s population became seriously imbalanced, one might have to rethink: but given that most countries, including all in the West, do not, and given that many families in most countries will choose to have roughly as many of the other sex, this should not stop this proposal being put into effect in many countries. Even in China, the problem is largely due to the "one-child" policy which has been relaxed in many areas since the mid-1990s. Over time, a scarcity of one gender will in any case produce new pressures to rebalance the population, e.g the paying of dowries may change, women will achieve higher status.


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No

  • Gender selection will likely result in demographic imbalances. Selective abortion has meant that gender imbalance in China and India is already very, very high – 1.3 boys to each girl in some regions – demonstrating the likely result of such policies in some countries. Even in western countries some minority groups' gender preferences may result in serious imbalances in some communities. These imbalances are socially harmful because in time many young men will be unable to find a partner; in China this is already linked to a rise in sexual violence, kidnapping and forced marriage, and prostitution.


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Planning: Is this an important option for parental planning?

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Yes

  • Knowing the gender of a child is very helpful for planning purposes. It is hardly shattering the mystery of childbirth, given how common ultrasound scans are. Knowing what gender a child will be is tremendously helpful for parents in planning for the future (picking clothes, colour schemes, toys, names etc). Why not extend that ability to plan?


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No

  • Having a child is a process of wonder and awe, not planning and practicality. These proposals make having children to something more like pre-ordering a car. To many people the moment of conception is the start of life, touched by God and not to be interfered with or abused out of selfish human motives.


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Replacement: Would this be valuable for replacing a lost child?

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Yes

  • It would allow parents to replace a lost child with one of same gender. The trauma and grief of having lost a child might be more easily relieved by allowing the couple to have another child of the same gender.


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No

  • Children are not replacements. They are individuals, unique in themselves. How will a child feel if they know that their primary purpose for being on this earth is to serve as a fill-in for a dead sibling? It is also unhealthy for a parent to try to replace a lost child. They begin to see their new child as the lost one, and not as a different person, which can lessen the special bond between parent and child.


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Sex-specific diseases: Is choosing the sex of children a good way to avoid these diseases?

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Yes

  • Some parents are carriers of known sex-specific diseases. It is obviously in the child’s interests that they don’t have such a condition. Determining its gender can ensure that. Many families have predispositions towards certain common conditions that are more likely in one gender in another, and these can be avoided too. Nearly all neurodevelopmental diseases are either more common in one gender or more severe among one gender. Arthritis, heart disease and even lung cancer also seem to be influenced by a person's gender. Males disproportionately suffer from X chromosome problems because their body has no copy to ‘fall back on.’ These range in nature from baldness and color blindness to muscular dystrophy and hemophilia. Women are disproportionately affected by diseases of the immune system. Genetic modification is not the only technology available. The MicroSort technique uses a ‘sperm-sifting’ machine to detect the minute difference between y and double x chromosome-carrying sperm: no genetic harm results from its use. Over 200 babies have been born using the technology without problems.


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No

  • Medical benefits are outweighed by medical costs. Pre-implantation genetic diagnosis involves the development of embryos outside the womb, which are then tested for gender. One or two of the desired gender are then implanted in the womb. Those that are not of the desired gender, or are surplus to requirements are destroyed (typically, over a dozen embryos are used to select a single one to be implanted). A human life has been created with the express purpose of being destroyed. This is another form of abortion – only the conception is deliberate. Ultimately, it will be these technologies and not MicroSort that is used, since whilst the latter has a 92% accuracy rate if a girl is desired (itself a lower result than genetic diagnosis), its accuracy falls to 72% for boys, and the vast majority of selections will inevitably be for males. Thus, given that they are so keen to have a child of a particular gender and so unwilling to risk having one of the other gender, parents will not risk using MicroSort. Even if they do choose it, whilst there have not been overt problems thus far, scientific experts like Lord Winston express the fear that the process damages sperm, making genetic mutation much more likely. Both techniques are therefore to be condemned.


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Legal avenues: Would it help avoid illegal means of gender selection?

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Yes

  • Gender selection is already occurring by less appropriate means. In many countries and cultures gender selection happens already, usually by selective abortion or abandonment of unwanted babies. Everyone can agree that this is a terrible waste of life and potentially very dangerous for the mother concerned, and of course many people object strongly to abortion on moral grounds. The use of new technologies to allow gender selection at the start of pregnancy will reduce and hopefully eventually end the use of selective abortion.


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No

  • In the view of many, the new technologies are not morally different from abortion - in all cases a potential life is taken. In any case, the cost of these new methods is so high, and likely to remain so, that the proposition argument is irrelevant - the use of ultrasound scanning leading to selective abortion is so much cheaper that this great evil will not be reduced. Instead, these new technologies are likely to make selective abortion more common, as if they are legalised they will appear to legitimise throwing away a human life simply because the parents would prefer, e.g a boy rather than a girl.


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Public opinion: Where does the public stand in this debate?

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Yes

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No

  • A majority of Americans oppose sex selection for non-medical reasons. Genetics and Public Policy Center at Johns Hopkins University found that 60 percent of Americans are uncomfortable with sex selection for nonmedical reasons. Director of the center Kathy Hudson said in 2004, "The use of a technology to fulfill parental desires is viewed as vain, capricious and frivolous."[4]
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Pro/con resources

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Yes


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No

See also

External links:

Books:

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