Choosy moms choose their babies' sex?

"Women are turning to science to gain even more control over procreation."

By Lynn Harris

Published February 26, 2009 8:59PM (EST)

As if advanced reproductive technology hadn't gotten enough (not so deservedly) bad ink from the "Octomom," the Philadelphia Inquirer yesterday raised, rather ominously, the issue of parents who use high-tech (and folky) techniques to try to choose their babies' sex.

"It's a brave new world in childbearing, where advances in reproductive technology mean Mother Nature doesn't necessarily determine whether the nursery gets painted blue or pink," writes Jennifer Bails. "By spending thousands of dollars, parents can now fulfill any secret desires they may have to choose their child's gender." And (as Bails paraphrased one expert): "In a time when elective cesarean sections are scheduled like conference calls and parents outsource everything from baby-proofing to potty-training, it's not surprising that women are turning to science to gain even more control over procreation. This newfound power could help to break the silent taboo in our culture about gender preference."

Yeah ... OK. Sue me if that taboo is not tip-top on my to-break list. Such stories are tough enough to stomach even during boom times (and will always seem rather bourgeois in the context of global sex-selective abortion and infanticide). Today especially, it seems harder than ever to defend dropping four-large on pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (that's on top of the tab for IVF) just to make "sure" you get a Taylor instead of an Emerson, whichever one of those is a girl/boy these days.

But such stories also often leave a lot of issues under-explored, a lot of points un-made, and a lot of facts, well, out. Such as: Precisely how common is it, really, for parents to use these fancy techniques to select sex? Exactly how many parents use PGD for sex-selection vs. for selection against fatal disease that runs in both families (and, devil's advocate, is there an ethical distinction to be made there in the first place)? What (small?) fraction of parents who use IVF also use PGD for sex selection? And so on.

Also, just as this piece uses the terms "sex" and "gender" interchangeably, which they're not, it also often uses the term "women" (single mothers notwithstanding) as synecdoche for "couples" or "parents." How come? Do only mothers (as implied in that icky "turning to science" paragraph especially) make these unilateral decisions while doofy dads shrug and go along? (While we're on the subject, why do stories about parenthood seem to never have quotes from fathers unless they're stories about fathers?)

The other elephant in the nursery: How much does a child's sex matter in the first place? I don't mean in the "Shouldn't you just want a healthy baby?" sense, though that's obviously pertinent. I mean how much does sex matter in terms of who a child is -- and what gender-based assumptions might one be making, or at least leaving unexamined, in the first place? I, for one, absolutely wanted to know my kids' sex before they were born. But not because it mattered to me. On the contrary, in fact. I wasn't interested in the effort it would take to maintain any sort of "mystery," because I felt that knowing their sex had pretty much nothing to do with knowing them. Because to me the "surprise" would be finding out who they were as they grew, not who they were, you know, in their pants.

Other parents enjoy not knowing until birth, I realize; geh gezinteh hait. But just as a kid's sex hardly tells the whole story, neither do "trend" articles that don't answer -- or at least ask -- some of these questions.

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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