Thursday, January 22, 2004

Sex Selection

This article by Kathleen Parker, in which she argues against the use of genetic sex selection, is a miracle of poor reasoning. It’s the kind of article that’s almost anti-persuasive: if these are the best arguments they can muster against sex selection, then it must be okay. I can’t resist giving it a brisk fisking.
Just because we can, should we? And who should decide? Is this yet another place government doesn't belong? If not a matter for government oversight, then who should decide what we do with human life in all its permutations - pre-born, test-tubed, sperm-selected and ova-donated.

Priests, rabbis and imams? A jury of one's peers? Bioethicists?
Ooh, um, I don’t know… parents, maybe? Odd how that option didn’t even make the list.
Family planning no longer means counting moon phases.
This is news? Family planning hasn’t meant counting moon phases since the invention of the pill.
Increasingly, it's a matter of mapping gender and genes. Already some specialty sperm and egg banks offer "Ivy League" donors; hundreds of couples have signed up for sex-selection trials.
In this context, “already” means “for over 30 years, since sperm banks first appeared.” Sperm banks have always kept track of the characteristics of their donors, so that sperm shoppers could choose the sort of father they wanted. So far, it hasn’t been a problem.
What's the big deal about identifying sex, proponents ask? If a family has three boys and wants a girl, why shouldn't they have the option to choose? Questions far outnumber answers thus far, which may be an answer in itself.
That’s right, more questions constitutes an answer. From now on, if you want to ban something, you don’t actually have to demonstrate a harm – you just have to ask a bunch of questions.
Some pragmatists worry that sex selection could become a new form of sex discrimination. Or that we might upset the balance of nature by fooling with the ratio of boys to girls, as occurred in China when families limited to one child aborted females.
This is, in my mind, the only serious objection to sex selection. But the fact that it happened in China – which (a) has a long cultural history of strongly preferring boys to girls, (b) still has many regions dominated by agriculture, which favors having children who can work the fields, and (c) has a state policy limiting parents to a single child each – doesn’t mean that it will happen here. And even if it does, the problem might be self-correcting; see my previous post on this subject.
Sex selection also adds a prickly new dimension to the abortion issue. If you order a girl and mistakenly get a boy, do you abort the "wrong sex"? Of course, you certainly may, and some have. Wrong sex, wrong time, wrong mood. Getting born these days is a tricky proposition.
The reasoning here is exactly backward. People who care that much about getting a baby of the right sex can abort wrong-sexed fetuses under the status quo, with no help from sex selection technology. I doubt such abortions are common, but more importantly, the availability of sex selection will reduce their frequency, not increase it. Parents who really, really want a boy can make 99.99% sure they get one in the first place, rather than aborting two or three girls first.
Here's at least one question I haven't heard asked: When did it become accepted wisdom that people should always get exactly what they want? Since when are perfect outcomes the standard by which we measure quality of life?
Strange that she hasn’t heard anyone ask that question, since statists ask it on a regular basis, as though it were actually an argument or something. It’s not. We all know it’s impossible for everyone to get exactly what they want. But when we can improve some people’s happiness without substantially burdening others’, only pointless self-denial would prevent us from doing so. If improving people’s ability to come closer to getting what they want is a bad thing, then we need to rethink a lot of other technological advances – like condoms, for instance, which have been around at least since the time of Caesar.
In every case, I suspect, a degree of narcissism creeps into the romantic equation that results in our little darlings. Father wants a son just like Dad; Mother wants a daughter just like Mom.
If true, this claim mitigates the alleged sex-ratio problem. At least in cases where both Mom and Dad are involved in the decision, the two sources of narcissism cancel each other out (to some degree, at least).
Besides which, life without surprises – and the kind of spontaneity that sometimes results in an unplanned pregnancy – would be intolerably boring.
So should we ban birth control to encourage more of those fun “surprise” pregnancies? Look, if you want a surprise, you can still have one – it’s not like trying to tickle yourself! If you want your child’s sex to be a surprise, don’t use sex selection! For decades now, parents have had the ability to find out their child’s sex before birth; many have chosen to do so, but others have not. (Neal and his wife chose a clever halfway house, because he wanted to know but she didn’t. Neal found out the baby’s sex and then agreed to switch pronouns from week to week – “he” this week, “she” next week – so his wife wouldn’t be tipped off. If he ever slipped, the error could be written off to forgetting what week it was.)

Perhaps there are some risks to sex selection, but I haven’t heard a truly persuasive one yet. Articles like this one just reinforce my suspicion that opposition to sex selection stems from squeamishness and little else.

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