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Sex selection by gay men using gestational surrogacy: a troubling trend in queer family-making?

29 July 2019
By Dr Linda Layne
Reproductive Sociology Research Group, University of Cambridge, UK
Appeared in BioNews 1008

The gestational surrogacy memoirs of five European and American gay dads and one heterosexual single-father-by-choice suggest that sex selection for sons may be occurring (Layne 2018,2019).  

In all but one case the fathers either lived in or travelled to the US or Thailand: countries where preimplantation genetic screening (PGS) for social sex selection (SSS) was available at the time. None already had children. Ten of the twelve children that resulted were boys, mostly resulting from all-boy, multiple pregnancies (one set of triplets, two sets of twins). Might these memoirs reveal a larger pattern?  

A US study of 40 gay-father families created through (predominantly gestational) surrogacy, and 55 lesbian-mother families created through donor insemination, found that 60 percent of the men's children were boys and 40 percent were girls, while the children born to women were 50.9 percent boys, 49.1 percent girls (Blake et al. 2016; Golombok et al. 2017:6). The sample is not large enough to be conclusive, but together with the memoirs, it does raise the question of whether sex selection for boys is taking place among gay men who choose gestational surrogacy. 

If they are, do the standard ethical objections to SSS pertain? For example, how relevant is the concern that sex selection reinforces gender stereotyping when the parents themselves are nonconforming? Gay dad memoirs and documentaries (Layne 2017) indicate that these fathers are not immune to gender stereotyping when it comes to parenting. The Daddy of the documentary 'Daddy and Papa' described feeling shame when their adopted son engaged in feminine behaviour, such as dressing up in a neighbour's high-heeled shoes, and recognised this as internalised homophobia. On the other hand, when their son showed enthusiasm for sports, the dads felt out of their element, having avoided sports themselves as children. 

One of the reasons the notion of 'family balancing' is seen to be morally acceptable is because it endorses the cultural ideals of diversity and equality. But since the normative nuclear family is a man and a woman, a boy and a girl, is this not just reproduction of the heterosexual parents and if a male couple has two boys, is that not comparable? However, if the principle is self-replication, why do we not find a preference for girls in lesbian and heterosexual single-mother-by-choice families? Sperm sorting boasts a higher success rate for girls (Bahtia), having first been used by the dairy industry to increase the incidence of female calves (Rath et al), and could be just as effective as PGD is for men in producing sex-homogeneous families. 

The issue, then, is not sex selection, but male selection. Other evidence suggests that in Europe and the US, SSS is used most often to produce boys (Lemke and Rüppel 2019:89, Sharp et al. 2010). The Gallup polls indicate male preference is predominant among would-be American fathers and has changed very little over the past 78 years. In 2018, 43 percent of the men surveyed said they would want a son compared to 24 percent who opted for a daughter (Newport 2018). Women responding to the Gallup poll have consistently shown no preference. 

Another common objection to SSS is that unlike consumer goods, 'whose characteristics it is legitimate to select according to one's desires', children are a gift to be accepted and loved unconditionally (Scully et al. 2006:754). But even without PGD, gestational surrogacy almost always involves purchase of desirable traits. Commercial egg donation presents would-be fathers with a wide selection to choose from, something many of the memoirists say makes them uncomfortable, just as women who buy sperm report when faced with such an array of consumer choice (Layne 2013). But choose they do. Both groups often choose a donor who is tall because of the perceived 'advantage in life' height gives (Bonnie quoted in Tober 2019: 75); 'tall people are statistically more successful' (Hirschi 2015:136). 

Being male also increases the likelihood of economic success. Despite The Ethics Committee of the American Society of Reproductive Medicine's (1999) reassurance that 'gender discrimination is not as deeply intertwined with economic structures in the United States as it may be elsewhere,' men are still more likely to succeed economically than women in the US and in the UK as seen in the ongoing gender-based wage gap (15 percent in the US and 17.9 percent in the UK).

A final ethical problem with the use of PGD for sex selection is it puts pressure on egg donors to produce more eggs so that there will be enough healthy embryos of the sex of the fathers' choosing. Elsewhere I have argued that traditional surrogacy is a more ethical method of undertaking family making via surrogacy because it poses fewer health risks for the surrogate and eliminates the need for egg harvesting. It also eliminates the temptation of using PGD for sex selection. 

In countries where PGD for SSS is legal, clinics can achieve a market advantage by attracting reproductive tourists from countries where it is not. Whittaker (2011) describes those who partake as 'reproduction opportunists, exploiting regulatory deficiencies and biomedical entrepreneurialism to purchase whatever services they desire, whether they be sex traits or any of the other myriad of technologies promoted by global capitalism.'  

My take on it is that gay men and heterosexual single-fathers-by-choice who use gestational surrogacy and are therefore demonstrably willing to spend large amounts on family-making are likely targets for those seeking to profit from PGD/SSS. 

In 2005, Franklin and Roberts published an ethnographic account of PGD in the UK (for medical purposes only) and contrasted this with lurid warnings about designer babies. In the intervening years, PGD has moved into new terrain. More chapters are needed to document the vigorously animated 'social life' of PGD.

Single fathers by choice: Memoirs of getting twins and triplets via transnational gestational surrogacy
Reproductive BioMedicine & Society Online |  1 August 2019
19 August 2019 - by Bernie Owusu-Yaw 
Scientists at Hiroshima University have discovered a new sperm separation technique which could be used in future for sex selection...
10 June 2019 - by Dr Patrick Foong 
In Australia, debates on whether prospective parents should be permitted to make their own decisions on gender selection for non-medical purposes have been ramping up...
24 September 2018 - by Rikita Patel 
Prenatal tests offered by private UK clinics are misused for sex-selection and could lead to abortions of female fetuses, according to a BBC investigation...
22 May 2017 - by Dr Tereza Hendl 
Australia recently saw important developments in the field of assisted reproductive technologies, as the National Health and Medical Research Council released its revision of the Part B of the Ethical Guidelines on the Use of Assisted Reproductive Technology in Clinical Practice and Research. Among other topics, this section is concerned with the regulation of sex selection...
Comment ( - 30/07/2019)
I was really disappointed to read this comment piece in Bionews. Feeding a kind of conservative moral panic about gay men having children, it taps into an anti-surrogacy narrative about commoditising children and even homophobia, suggesting some kind of sinister dystopia of gay parents indoctrinating their children against femaleness. 

Yes, a very tiny number of parents who go through IVF and happen to know the sex of their embryos due to genetic screening choose the sex of their child in countries which permit this (usually the US). Most don’t. And many of those who do are heterosexual parents too. In our long experience, gay men are just as likely to leave things to nature or to choose family balancing and mixed gender children as heterosexual couples presented with the same options. There is no massive trend of gay men preferring boys and no need for moral panic. Our long experience working with same-sex parents (backed by the findings of empirical research at the Cambridge Centre for Family Research, among others) shows us that gay dads are - like most other parents through surrogacy - committed responsible parents who love their children, whatever their gender, and are grateful for the opportunity to be parents.
Comment ( - 30/07/2019)
What a disappointing read! Poor show Bionews.  I'm personally unimpressed with the entire article and I feel it irresponsibly feeds into the narrative of gay men using Surrogacy as a luxury commodity.  Have you even spoken to Fathers through Surrogacy and asked if they did use gender selection then why?  And why not if they did?  If its legal in that country of treatment then what's your issue? And the numbers of heterosexuals using gender selection?  What's the relevance on the gay male community?  

As a Gay father with children via UK Surrogacy (who hasn't and is unable to gender select n the UK) I feel this article has potential to create more harm than good, and even has potential to stir up homophobia - suggesting gay dads/queer families are creating 'designer babies'.  A slur I often hear and a comment me and my husband have received personally, which is incredibly hurtful.  
Don't be concerned about our parenting either, research into Gay Dads with children via Surrogacy demonstrates we're up there with the best.

Michael - TwoDads.U.K
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