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The case against sex selection

8 October 2003
Appeared in BioNews 229
Sex selection is the exercise of sexism at the most profound level, choosing who gets born, and which types of lives are preferred. In traditional-patriarchal societies, such as in India and China, the preference for boys has led to huge imbalances in the sex ratio in the population. In western countries the choices that are being made are still based on rigid, sexist, gender roles. In how many cases where parents are 'desperate for a girl' will they be hoping for a loud tomboy who grows up to be an engineer? Society must continue to fight sexist gender stereotypes, not allow them to dictate who is born.

Currently, HFEA ethical guidelines do not permit sex selection using PGD (preimplantation genetic diagnosis), except for avoiding a serious medical condition, but sperm sorting is not regulated. However, sperm sorting does not change the ethics, it just changes the plumbing.  If parental-preference sex selection by sperm sorting is permitted, it will be impossible to prevent the use of PGD for that purpose: there is little philosophical basis for doing so, and parents will argue that they should be allowed access to the more accurate and reliable technique. And once PGD for parental-preference sex selection is permitted, it will be impossible to argue against its use for a whole variety of other unacceptable purposes, such as selection for appearance, intelligence, etc. Thus, if we allow sex selection by any means, the door to 'designer babies' will not have been opened a crack - it will have been thrown wide open.

The very act of selecting our children creates a major ethical problem, and can only be justified when the aim is to avoid serious impairment. By choosing the characteristics of our children, we turn reproduction into just another consumer experience, and this degrades its profound existential significance. Because babies are human beings, not things, it is critical that much is left to chance in their process of coming into being. The act of choosing tends to turn them into just another human-designed consumer object. When we choose/design our children, the relationship becomes one between designer and object, where the latter is inevitably in a subordinate position. Although parents always influence and direct their children, parents who have chosen a girl seem likely to put greater pressure on her to conform to their hopes and expectations of her behaviour.

It is sometimes suggested that so-called 'family balancing'- whereby families with two or more children of one sex, choose a child of the opposite sex- is a less objectionable use of sex selection. However, it is not clear that there is any difference between this and other cases. The motivation for such choices is still likely to be sexist, and any line to be drawn between 'acceptable' family balancing and unacceptable consumerism will be arbitrary and therefore unsustainable. Since the average number of children per family is now less than two, those many couples who only intend to have one child could reasonably claim they were being discriminated against. Thus, if an exception is made for 'family balancing', we are opening the door to the future unrestricted use of sex selection.It is often suggested that there exists a right for individuals to reproduce in whatever way they wish. But a general negative right of non-interference in normal reproduction is very different to a 'right' of access to any form of technological assistance needed to reproduce, whatever the consequences for everyone else.

Although strong individual rights may protect against eugenic interference by the state, in Western countries, the greater threat is of a free-market eugenics, driven by commerce and by consumerist desires for the perfect baby. Rather than non-interference, what is needed now is more state regulation to restrain the eugenic trend, including a ban on sex selection.

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