It's a girl ... please

More parents are reportedly using fancy fertility techniques to have daughters.

Published September 5, 2007 7:49PM (EDT)

Think you'd like to have a girl? You could try eating chocolate, having sex under a full moon, making sure your baby daddy wears boxers or employing new flow cytometric separation technology to separate the X chromosome-bearing sperm from the Y and using the enriched fraction of sorted sperm to achieve pregnancy. And according to an article in AlterNet (via Women's eNews), more and more parents -- in the interest of "family balancing," in both directions -- are plunking down big chunks of change to do the latter.

The sorting process is often used in conjunction with a technique called pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), wherein embryos created via in vitro fertilization may be screened for serious, if not life-threatening genetic disorders, particularly those that parents know they're at risk of transmitting. According to this article (if I understand the rather vague wording correctly), a 2006 report by the Washington-based Genetics and Public Policy Center found that 42 percent of fertility clinics offering PGD made it available for nonmedical sex selection.

And more often than not, according to "fertility professionals," parents are trying to select for girls. (The piece also states that "up to 80 percent of U.S. families choose to try for girls," a stat that clearly lacks a bit of context. Also, one doctor interviewed said that in his experience, it's 50/50.) In any regard, compare and contrast: China, India.

The article states ominously, and predictably, that "ethicists say the practice is on slippery ground" -- but then, oddly, never really gets any ethicists to come out and say so. The American Medical Association has neither endorsed nor condoned it; the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, in Birmingham, Ala., says the practice is ethical when the couple does not have "unrealistic expectations about the behavior of children of the preferred gender." One doctor quoted says we need to make sure technology doesn't too far outpace discussion (who would disagree?); another (a clinic director, it should be noted) basically shrugs. "We've been accused of being on the slippery slope for 20 years. The future's maybe a bit scarier than things are right now," he says, referring to the putative day when Gattaca Fertility Associates will be able to sort DNA for much more than gender.

That's it? I'm truly surprised that they couldn't get one person to say, "Hey, it's a free -- slash, expensive -- country, but it's a little questionable to do such somersaults to try to choose Jane over Dick." (Or should I say, Caden over Hayden? Wait, which is which?) Of course, we could acknowledge that, to the degree that they do, it's a sign of ... well, something that certain American parents appear to actively prefer girls. Though I'm guessing that those who do aren't saying to themselves, "I'd like to have a girl so that she can experience the full measure of her equality."

Ethical and sociopolitical considerations aside, my immediate reaction also comes from the gut. I'm uncomfortable with the implication that a child's gender is an -- the -- essential element of his or her identity, the implication that to have a girl, or a boy, is to know what your kid will be like. That's not a political statement about "social construction of gender," it's a personal one about being open to the full mystery and miracle of parenting. I am also inclined to agree with Dr. Shrug, above. We absolutely, positively have to talk, and fast, about what lies close ahead on this slope, and fancy fertility technology as a whole will always have its quite reasonable detractors. Even so, we shouldn't let the availability of -- and perhaps overblown publicity about -- such luxury treatments obscure what the state of the art has made possible for parents who simply want a healthy child -- girl or boy.

By Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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