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Ann Bradley

The right to choose baby's sex

Britain's first sex selection clinic has opened at Hendon in north London. Run by a chemical pathologist, Dr Alan Rose, and a biochemist, Dr Peter Liu, it uses a technique based on the separation of fast-swimming male sperm from slower girlie sperm. Once separated, doctors can inseminate a woman with the appropriate batch. There's no guarantee of success - estimates vary between a 60 and 70 per cent chance of getting the sex you want. Sperm are notoriously unpredictable; one male sperm can be sluggish but still capable of fertilisation, and some female sperm can sprint ahead of the lads.

People have always tried to determine their babies' sex. The Greeks believed that tying a cord around the left testicle would produce boys. Making love while the north wind blows, keeping your boots on, and swallowing a raw egg or eating shellfish before the action have all been recommended at various times. They don't work - but 'post-conception' sex selection techniques do.

Infanticide, for example, is an extremely effective form of sex selection. So is abortion following ante-natal testing. These methods have been routinely practised in countries where one sex (usually boys) has been favoured over the other. India has many clinics which conduct amniocentesis tests at the request of women and abort unwanted female fetuses. Likewise in China where there is considerable pressure to have only one child, and parents would prefer that one child to be a son.

It is highly probable that abortions of wrong-sex fetuses have been going on in some British clinics too. After all, just about any medical treatment is available if you can pay for it. However, the Hendon clinic is the first commercial venture openly offering a choose-your-sex service in Britain, and it has thrown up yet another of those moral conundrums that the media love to jerk off about. In the press the debate has been presented in starkly polarised terms: money-grubbing private medics versus socially responsible commentators concerned with important ethical issues.

How do the 'ethical' arguments against sex selection measure up? Probably the least persuasive is the argument that nature does a sound job of producing a rough 50:50 balance of the sexes and we interfere with it at our peril. Commentators have warned that such interference might create a severe population imbalance in favour of boys, and make it impossible for humanity to reproduce itself.

The strange thing is that the socially responsible, ethically minded commentators warning against this threat to human reproduction are the same people who bang on about the dangers of an expanding world population. Now they want it both ways. In India, liberals and feminists have long pressed the government to close abortion clinics practising sex selection. Health officials have refused, on the grounds that the clinics encourage smaller families. You might not approve of this form of social engineering (I don't), but it is more logically consistent than the approach of those who support population control, yet oppose sex selection, both on moral grounds.

The flawed arguments about the future of human reproduction are often just a cover for the critics' real objection to sex selection: namely, that choosing the sex of your baby is an abhorrent interference with nature. This is ridiculous. We spend most of our lives trying to interfere with 'natural' fertility patterns by practising contraception, and few of us would be prepared to give that up. Fewer still would be prepared to give up modern medical advances such as antibiotics, chemo-therapy and microsurgery, despite the fact that such medical wonders have helped to create 'unnatural' demographic shifts like an ageing population.

A more persuasive-sounding argument against sex selection is that it legitimises and encourages discrimination against women. My own view is that medical practice can only reflect, rather than cause, the attitudes which exist in society. And the only way to alter this is to change the real basis for such preferences.

For instance, in many underdeveloped societies there is a clear reason why boys are preferred to girls. Within the existing social division of labour boys grow up to work and support their parents, girls grow up to marry and cost their parents a dowry. In a society where there is no social security and old-age pension each generation depends on the next. Boys guarantee their parents a decent standard of living. Girls don't. Small wonder that the birth of a girl is greeted with significantly less enthusiasm. If you eliminate the socio-economic basis for the preference of one sex over another, by providing people with what they need, you can eliminate the basis for the prejudice.

Many have demanded that sex selection should be state-regulated and only allowed for 'good reasons'. There seems to be a consensus that one good reason would be to allow putative parents to ensure that a 'sex-linked' genetic disease was not passed on. This is regarded as a humane and desirable use of the technology, while the attempt to produce a son is seen as trivial and undesirable.

But do we really want to hand over the decision about whether we can or can't avail ourselves of medical technology to some moral ombudsman? Is it desirable for a panel of the great and the good to decide that the Smiths can take advantage of sex selection because if they have a boy it may have Duchenne's muscular dystrophy, but the Jones can't because the inherited defect suffered by a son of theirs is only likely to be colour blindness? If a couple are distressed because they have enough sons to form a football team and want to ensure the next is a daughter, why should they tolerate a posse of MPs, doctors or law lords declaring their ambition immoral? Why shouldn't parents decide - it's their sperm.

I have no moral or ethical concerns about the Hendon clinic. If couples want to have their sperm doctored to improve chances of getting a son or daughter, it's their business. My only objection to the clinic is its pathetic success rate. Charging £650 a time (non-refundable if you don't get what you want) to increase someone's chance of conceiving a boy from 50 per cent to 60 or 70 per cent is quite simply a con. Especially since, by the clinic's own figures, it takes an average couple two or three treatments to conceive. This is the most important problem with the Hendon clinic - but it seems to have been lost in the highfalutin' moral kerfuffle.

It's not surprising really. When it comes to medical developments, only select issues generate moral concern within the establishment; and the fact that people are simply being ripped off isn't high on the agenda. Yet medical rip-offs are a real threat to ordinary people. The principle of sex selection, on the other hand, is only a threat to the reactionary notion that gender is best determined by God or nature.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 53, March 1993

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