Selecting sex is more than a simple choice

“A GIRL for you, a boy for me,” they sang in the ’20s. Soon it won’t be a topic for day-dreaming over a cup of tea but a matter for clinicians in laboratory coats. Within five years, predicts a senior fertility specialist, a new sperm-sorting technique will allow any couple to choose their baby’s sex.

What’s more, Professor Robert Jansen, the chairman of the infertility committee of the Royal Australian College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, believes couples should be free to use the technique as they see fit.

“Ultimately I think the decision has to be made by the people who have to live with the consequences of the decision, not individuals who have nothing to do with the couple concerned, ” he says. “But the world is full of people who want to make decisions for other people.” Is it as simple as that?
Choosing babies’ sex has become a hot topic since last week’s news that a team at Monash IVF implanted female embryos into a woman who carried a male-linked genetic disease. The woman’s first baby died and two other pregnancies were terminated because of X-linked hydrocephalus, an untreatable form of fluid on the brain that causes death within hours of birth.

Any male child the woman conceived would have a 50 per cent chance of carrying the defect.

This is a case where there were clear medical grounds for sex-selection. This was not about valuing one sex over the other but about offering a healthy child to a couple who had already lost three much-wanted babies.

Nevertheless, the procedure raises ethical questions. The director of embryology at Monash, Dr Leeanda Wilton, says it is no longer considered experimental given the healthy babies it has produced overseas. A somewhat more cautious Professor Jansen says: “It’s still pretty new.” There are questions about what should be done with embryos of the at-risk sex created in the process (in this case, Epworth Hospital’s ethics committee insisted that the male embryos be frozen).

And there are questions about who should be offered the procedure. If there is only a 50-50 chance of a defect being passed on, should couples be required to try naturally first? If so, how many times? What of couples who do not carry a gene for a defect, but merely a gene that would predispose a child to a particular disease later in life? The child may or may not get it, and if it does appear it might not be in a disabling form; would this justify fiddling with human life in Petri dishes?
Tougher questions are looming. Scientists expect to discover soon the genes that contribute to height, IQ, skin color and personality traits such as shyness. If Westerners were able to choose superficial qualities commonly valued, the result could be hordes of thin, blond, blue-eyed, hetero conformists with high IQs who can play piano. If this seems fanciful, consider the poll finding that 11 per cent of Americans would abort a child predisposed to obesity.

The sperm-sorting technique Professor Jansen describes, which was discussed at the IVF world congress in Vienna early this year, is already being used for sex selection in animals.

He suspects that in the West couples would be more likely to opt for girls, as has happened in European sex selection clinics. But it is clear that worldwide, the technique would only exacerbate the dearth of women.

India is renowned for its abortions of female foetuses (of 8000 abortions at one Bombay clinic, 7999 were of females, according to an Indian Government report), and a Melbourne researcher, Dr Lynette Dumble, says India now has twice as many boys as girls. In one Chinese province, infanticide has left men of marriageable age outnumbering women by 10 to one.

One study suggested that even in America, sex selection would result in a 9.5 per cent surplus of males.

The Economist magazine has rather naively argued that imbalances of women would result in them becoming more highly valued.

As possessions, maybe. In the Third World, it’s more likely to further decrease their economic and social power and feed evils such as the trafficking of women.

In the West, couples might choose a boy and a girl. That would maintain the social balance but might change the nature of the relationship between parent and child. What happens to unconditional love when one introduces conditions? What would it be like for a child to know that a clinic had been sued because he or she had disappointed parents by turning out to be the “wrong” sex?
As it is, the unrealistic fantasies of would-be parents can make it hard for them to deal with the reality of a new baby. And, as the medical ethicist Nick Tonti-Filippini points out, in seeking the baby of our dreams we might lose sight of the fact that even the sweetest children become grotty adolescents.

We have moved a long way from the Judaeo-Christian ethic that every child is a gift from God. Our community largely accepts the ending of embryonic life that is physically or mentally defective. We rightly leave it to parents to decide whether to accept the suffering that would be imposed on them, their other children, and the child concerned.

This principle holds for the use of embryo biopsy to avoid serious genetic defect. It does not hold for the selection of sex or other normal characteristics. Ultimately, the danger is that in any search to produce humans who are ever more perfect – or worse, fit a desired cultural norm – we would lose touch with the very qualities that make us human.

First published in The Age.