The ethics of sex selection

Should parents be able to special-order boy and girl babies?

By Catherine Price
Published February 7, 2007 12:19AM (EST)

India and China have long been criticized for their sex-selection practices, but it looks like Americans may soon be able to choose their babies' sex, too -- or at least make one sex a lot more likely -- according to the New York Times. (Sex selection has already been explored in a limited capacity stateside, in a controversial test by Houston's Baylor College of Medicine.)

There are two possible methods. One uses in vitro fertilization, but adds a twist: Before putting anything into the woman's womb, doctors test the embryos for sex. Then, if there are enough embryos, parents can decide if they want to insert only embryos of a particular sex. The combined procedures can cost up to $20,000 -- quite a chunk of change, especially since it's not usually covered by insurance. In addition to the question of whether sex selection is moral to begin with, this one also raises the issue of what should be done with the discarded embryos.

Then there's something called MicroSort -- a new technology that sorts semen to determine gender (since sperm, not eggs, determine a baby's sex). According to the Times, MicroSort "can shift the ratio to either 88 percent female or 73 percent male," and costs between $4,000 and $6,000, not including the subsequent IVF. (MicroSort is still experimental and hasn't yet been approved by the FDA.) Among the 900 or so births reported so far by MicroSort's clinic, there has been a 91 percent success rate for parents who wanted girls and 76 percent for boys.

So here's the question: Is it ever ethical to select for sex? The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists accepts the idea only if a parent carries genes for a disease that primarily affects one sex. MicroSort says it's OK if the parents are "family balancing" -- if they already have, say, three boys and want to balance things out with a girl.

It all boils down to the underlying question about sex selection: whether motives matter. What do Broadsheet readers think?

Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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