Why selecting the gender of your child isn’t as great as it sounds.
Last summer, at my cousin’s baby shower, I sat in a room covered in pink from floor to ceiling. Pink balloons floated lazily in the air, and pink streamers hung from the doorways. Even the cake was pink, coated with a thick layer of raspberry cream frosting. The reason for all the pink? My cousin was excited to have finally learned the sex of her unborn baby; she was excited to have a girl.
Most people consider the sex of their future children to be out of their hands. There is a fifty-fifty chance that you will end up with either sex, and most consider it a fact left up to fate, a surprise that one celebrates no matter the outcome.
Humankind, though, never satisfied to leave anything up to chance, has, for centuries, attempted to influence the sex of their future children. The ancient Greeks believed that if a man had sex while lying on his right side, a boy would be conceived. The Chinese created “conception calendars,” which told couples what dates to have intercourse in order to conceive the desired gender. In 18th century France, it was believed that by cutting off the father’s right testicle, one could be sure to give birth to a boy.
However, while the desire to influence the gender of one’s unborn child is not new, the methods for doing so have evolved. Gender selection was taken to a new level with the invention of Pre-implantation Genetic Diagnosis (PDG) in1989. PDG is the procedure of screening the DNA of embryos that have been fertilized in vitro (outside of the mother’s body). PDG was originally invented for the purpose of checking DNA for fatal genetic diseases. However, PDG can also be used to screen for gender. And, promising a 99.9 percent accuracy rate, its no surprise that doctors jumped at the opportunity to use PDG to satisfy the age-old demand for accurate prenatal gender selection.
Today, the use of PDG to select gender is common and has quickly become a multi-million dollar enterprise. Last year, there were about 6,000 procedures done in the US. Websites for fertility clinics broadcast the reliability of PDG and market gender selection as a tool for “family balancing.” Now, in America, not only can you buy the perfect car, home, and education, but, for just 18,000 dollars, you can buy the perfect family as well.
The use of PDG for prenatal selection is currently legal in the United States, and there has been surprisingly little controversy against its use. Those who support the use of PDG for gender selection argue that sex selection is a parental right, like abortion or screening for disease. They assert that modern society views genders equally so that the widespread use of PDG will not skew gender ratios. Many also argue that gender selection is just the first step in the long line of progress towards the inevitable genetic engineering for certain traits. They imagine that a world where one can choose to give birth to a daughter with blue eyes, an athletic build, and a high IQ, isn’t that far off, and that we should embrace such scientific advances.
However, I would argue that prenatal gender selection is worrisome both from an ethical and societal standpoint. Yes, the demand for PDG is there, and there is no denying that science has given us this ability. But, what are the ethical consequences of choosing gender, and is society ready for the responsibility of such a choice?
Some see PDG as unethical because it terminates the “potential lives” of the healthy embryos that were of the undesired gender. From this perspective, PDG is an improper use of a technology used to fight illness. They argue that your gender is not a disease and that a medical procedure like PDG should not be used for nonmedical purposes.
Additionally, some worry that PDG is unethical because of the potential psychological harm it inflicts upon the future child. Wouldn’t a boy feel less comfortable coming out as gay if he knew his parents had paid to have a son? Wouldn’t a girl who knew she was preselected to be female feel less comfortable trying out for the football team?
There are also a host of prospective social consequences to the widespread use of gender selection. In countries like China and India, where there is a clear cultural preference for male children, the availability of PDG could create a dangerous demographic imbalance. The consequences of gender imbalance are immense. Apart from reinforcing the idea of male superiority, a population with far more males than females statistically leads to increased incidences of violence and crime, increased prostitution and sex trafficking, and the destruction of the stability of family-oriented economy.
Even more troubling, is the idea that perhaps the demographic consequences of PDG would not be unique to faraway countries. Americans themselves do not seem to be free of a gender bias towards males. A 2011 Gallup poll showed that 40 percent of Americans actively favored boys, while only 28 percent favored girls, with the remaining 32 percent impartial. What’s more is that Americans have consistently favored boys in each of the ten times that Gallup has asked this question since 1941.
Because of these ethical and demographic concerns, the use of PDG for gender selection is currently illegal in several countries including the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia. Some countries, such as Austria, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy, have outlawed PDG entirely, even for the use of screening for genetic disorders. America, however, has virtually no regulation of the use of PDG for genetic selection.
To me, the possible ethical and social consequences of unregulated gender selection seem too great just to fulfill the desire to preselect for gender. Yes, America is a “free country,” but it seems ironic and unethical that maintaining our reputation of freedom means we must put a price on the lives of our children.
Remembering the joy on my cousin’s face, as she sat at her baby shower, surrounded by ribbons, and pink, and frills, and balloons, I was struck by the fact that it shouldn’t matter whether your baby is a boy or a girl, blue-eyed or fair-skinned, athletic jock or ultra-nerd. Never mind the in vitro technology and the ability of science to create a genetically perfect, balanced, family. All that should matter to a new parent is that your child is healthy and alive, that you are giving her (or him) life and that she (or he) is becoming a part of yours.
Eloise Lynton ’17 ([email protected]) isn’t planning on getting pregnant any time soon.