Thursday, August 25, 2005

Why bother to advocate sex selection when no one wants it anyway, and the harms are at best predictable, and at worst incalculable?

It is reassuring that every public opinion poll has shown that the public are staunchly and overwhelmingly opposed to allowing parents to choose the sex of their child. A solid 80% of the public oppose sex selection. Even the HFEA was forced to acknowledge opposition, following a public consultation in 2003 (see CORE). This overwhelming opposition seems to have two explanations. On one hand, thankfully we are not a sexist society (whatever arguments can be had about equal pay), and parents frankly think it is absurd to want to have a boy rather than a girl or vice versa.

Children are loved and wanted unconditionally and this is exactly as it should be. This is not to say that parental expectations would not change if society encouraged parents to prefer children of a particular gender, which is why whatever the current views of social sex selection, the law should not be changed to allow it as it would inevitably generate a demand for it. The other reason for such deep seated opposition to social sex selection is because of the serious implications of demographic imbalance, sexist stereotyping, psychological harms to the child and the slide towards infanticide in cases where sex selection hasn't worked.

Anjana Ahuja wrote a superb piece in The Times on the eugenic whiff of sex selection. In her critique of what "family balancing" can possibly mean, and what measurement government could use to measure parental distress at children of a particular gender, and the demographic implications, she asked: "And is there potential psychological fallout? What message does it send to daughters when mum and dad are prepared to spend thousands to ensure that their next child is not female? How will the youngest daughter feel — like a mistake that her parents will pay money not to repeat? Perhaps not, but is anyone gathering evidence?"

The question about evidence is a good one. Mary Ann Sieghart for example took the opposite view in T2 the following week, arguing that social sex selection is "perfectly natural" (not for the 80% of the public opposed, it isn't!). In any case, the question about whether a parent may excitedly look forward to having a daughter or son is very different from making this a matter of public policy. Idle speculations about the gender of the baby during pregnancy shouldn't be made elevated from speculation to a parental right to have a boy or a girl, as the cultural preference for boys and feticide and infanticide of baby girls should unequivocally prove. Far from being guilty of a "knee jerk" reaction against social sex selection, as Mary Ann Sieghart suggests, it seems that favouring sex selection is a knee jerk reaction that fails to properly weigh the negatives and also acknowledge that sex selection has unpredictable harms associated with it that cannot be measured until we can see the demographic problem for ourselves, or we have a cohort of children who we can start to measure for psychological damage.

Mary Ann Sieghart's answer to the problem of psychological harm to children is that children will sense their parents' disappointment anyway if sex selection is not used. I don't see how this is an argument in favour of encouraging parents to be disappointed with their children and to seek out expensive fertility treatment. She also dismisses the problem of demographic disaster on the grounds that currently only a small number of British parents have a preference for one gender over the other, and that as the preference for gender goes both ways, it would balance out, with no more boys or girls being born. This seems at least a little shaky. It might be the case in 2005 when 80% of the public are opposed to gender selection, but can we really be sure of what parental demands will be in 2010 or 2020 if these trends are set in motion?

Anyone who passionately believes in gender equality should be appalled at any attempt to suggest that a child of one gender can be prefered to a child of the opposite sex. What happened to allowing children to develop their own interests and personalities? To reduce a child to a gender stereotype and ignore a child's personality, ability, temperament and development (surely much more interesting than gender) is absurd. Have we come so far in terms of gender equality and feminism only to reduce the potential of every child to whether we can dress them in pink or blue?


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