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
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
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
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
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