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Gender Selection
Ethical Considerations & New Technologies


Should parents be able to select the gender of their child? Would it be ethical for people with fertility problems to choose which fertilized embryos get implanted and have the rest discarded as being the "wrong" gender? According to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, a group which establishes ethical guidelines for fertility clinics, the answers to those question is "Yes."

Many fertility specialists around the country were shocked to hear this announcement, released in a letter written by John Robertson, an ethicist and lawyer at the University of Texas who is currently the acting head of the organization. Some, however, will be offering the service immediately and report having received many requests for it over the years.

This position does not quite represent a decision by the ethics committee of the group, because the group was unable to meet in September because of the terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington D.C. Robertson did, however, say that he consulted with others and felt that the letter reflected the group's position. The previous position of the group, decided in 1999, was that such selection "should be discouraged."

Even back in January of 2001 the ethics committee raised serious ethical questions with such gender selection, including: "the potential for inherent gender discrimination, inappropriate control over nonessential characteristics of children, unnecessary medical burdens and costs for parents, and inappropriate and potentially unfair use of limited medical resources." After all, if physicians are using their skills for non-medical reasons, then those resources cannot be brought to other individuals with genuine need.

Additional concerns people have are possible sex ratio imbalances in the future (like we already have in China and India), "psychological harm to sex-selected offspring (i.e., by placing on them too high expectations), increased marital conflict over sex selective decisions, and reinforcement of gender bias in society as a whole."

The technology for doing this has existed for quite some time - there is nothing really new about it. However, it has been used almost exclusively for couples with legitimate fears of having babies with certain genetic diseases. For example, male embryos might be rejected because it is so likely that they may carry hemophilia. In other cases, the embryo can be genetically tested for the disease itself, and only healthy ones will be implanted.

It should be noted that the decision does simply approve of widespread gender selection - instead, it approves of situation-specific actions. The particular term used by Robertson is "gender variety," by which he means that a couple who already has a child of one gender should be allowed to ethically choose the implantation of embryos which would make sure their next child was of the opposite gender.

Aside from the fact that parents have traditionally been given great discretion over their reproductive choices, the ability to aid the desires of couples who have strong preferences about the gender of their offspring is perhaps the strongest reason for allowing such work. Thus, it is arguable that unless there is demonstrable and substantial harm to others, then couples should be allowed to choose the gender of their offspring.

Robertson has also emphasized that the couple needs to be fully informed of all the risks of the procedure and that they should receive counseling regarding unrealistic expectations about the behavior of children of the sought-after gender. It would, after all, be a disservice to the child if the parents were disappointed in him or her because the child failed to live up to particular gender stereotypes.

It is no surprise that not everyone approves of this new position. Dr. James Grifo, president-elect of the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology, has condemned sex selection as being nothing more than sex discrimination - and, hence, as unethical. He also worries that widespread publicity and marketing of this service could ultimately lead to people rejecting the technology of "test-tube" babies and, hence, prevent doctors from helping people with genuine medical needs.

He also worries about where we, as a society, are headed once parents start choosing particular embryos based upon particular, desired traits and then discarding all of those which do not "measure up." Specifically, how will we treat those who grow up with "undesirable" traits, for example the less intelligent or the less beautiful?

Another ethical question arises because there is already a method of gender selection which has received approval and which few object to: sperm sorting. It is possible to sort sperm into two groups, those which will produce male babies and those which will produce female babies. This technique is not, however, as reliable as checking the resulting embryo.

So, some think that if the basic concept of gender selection is ethical, then it would be unethical to only offer an inferior method of doing it. Others, however, see a vital ethical difference between the two methods, noting that sperm sorting does not result in discarding "potential babies."

This seems like a rather disingenuous objection, at least coming from anyone involved in the creation of embryos for fertility treatments. Why? Because they always create more than is needed, which necessarily results in some which may simply be discarded because they are superfluous. If someone really is bothered by "potential babies" being thrown away, then they should object to these fertility treatments completely.

When reading the statements of these "dueling ethicists," it is also worth wondering just what makes a person an "ethicist." How on earth do you become a "professional" in a field like ethics? Certainly a person can be better informed about the facts in a particular area, like medicine, and thus be in a better position to make informed ethical decisions in that area.

But, if we are in possession of the same information, is there any good reason to defer to an ethicist as some sort of expert or authority? Do they really qualify as someone to whom we should defer, and accept what they say as being ethical?

Despite some people's concerns, there is no reason to think that because we accept gender selection, society will inevitably end up creating "designer babies" and discriminate against any child that isn't perfect. This sort of thinking is an example of the Slippery Slope Fallacy. But if we don't go down that path, the main reason will be because we create clear ethical guidelines for exactly why gender selection is acceptable, but other sorts of selection or manipulation is not acceptable.

If, however, we are only doing it because we can and because there is a consumer demand, then the path of "designer babies" remains very much open to us, and there is every reason to think that society will take it. Clearly, then, it is incumbent upon us to create those ethical guidelines and be certain about what we are doing and why.

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