When Diane Tully [not her true name] found out she was pregnant with her fourth boy, she cried. “I love my boys and I would never give any of them back. But I feel like I am being cheated out of the girl I have dreamed of for as long as I can remember,” she says. Her story is common. But does she have the right to choose?
Australian guidelines for the ethical use of IVF allow selecting a child’s sex for medical reasons. But draft guidelines that are now open for public submissions raise the possibility of extending this and allowing the choice for social reasons.
The draft guidelines recognise that sex selection is a controversial practice; it’s banned in several states of the United States, in Europe, New Zealand and in parts of Asia. It acknowledges that it can reinforce gender stereotyping and that legalising the selection of a child’s sex could open up the way for choosing a range of other non-disease traits.
But it also recognises the importance of respecting reproductive autonomy and choice, and that some parents travel abroad to access sex selection at overseas clinics.
To stimulate public discussion, the draft offers five case studies that involve issues around “family balancing”, selection to “replace” a dead child, reproductive tourism, parental autonomy, and “slippery-slope” claims.
These case studies provide examples of sex selection that suggest two arguments in its favour: first, that sex selection for family balancing is ethically more permissible than selection based on a strong gender preference. And second, that parents have the right to select their child’s sex based on respect for reproductive autonomy.
But are these arguments convincing?
1. Family balancing
The argument for family balancing suggests the practice is ethically permissible because it entails no harm from sexism; the concept is based on the idea that a family is “balanced” when it includes children of both sexes.
Such families are presented as diverse and as offering more enriching experiences to all family members. And since parents seek children of both sexes, it’s plausible there’s no gender bias of the sort that might lead to skewed sex ratios. But is family balancing really gender egalitarian?
In 2013, I conducted a small study as part of my doctoral studies interviewing nine Australian women who selected or wanted to select their child’s sex. All participants had several sons and desired daughters because they longed for a strong mother-child relationship and were convinced that such a bond was only possible with a girl.
In the interviews, girls were described as necessarily more family-oriented and more inclined to emotional connection, while boys were associated with independence and adventure. These interviews showed family balancing is based on the belief that children come in two genders that have essentially different traits.
To the extent that family balancing is based on the selection of children to fulfil preconceived binary gender roles, it reinforces sexism. And, by reinforcing a gender binary, it denies rather than creates diversity within families.
2. Reproductive autonomy
The argument for reproductive autonomy holds parents have the right to choose their child’s sex and that should be respected. Advocates argue that some parents have strong preferences for their child’s sex, which justifies their pursuit of sex selection.
But parental autonomy is not the only thing at stake. Other important values include the autonomy and well-being of the future child.
The risk of harm in sex selection stems from the fact that parents don’t desire any child, they want a child of a particular sex. And the child is presumed to develop characteristics within the limits of binary gender roles.
This view doesn’t take a child’s individuality into account, and can hinder the development of her attributes and skills. What if a daughter is independent and a son wants a close bond with his mother?
And what about children who don’t fit traditional expectations about sex, such as those with intersex variations, and gender, such as transgender and gender-diverse children?
3. Reducing diversity
The paradox of preconception sex selection is that prenatal genetic diagnosis allows for selecting sex chromosomes – but it cannot unambiguously guarantee a child with a particular gender identity, traits or behaviour.
While some may argue that all parents have gender expectations, those who select their child’s sex are not just making assumptions, they’re acting on their preferences and seeking to create children to fit them.
Children who don’t fulfill selectors’ expectations might face parental disappointment or pressure to conform to stereotypical gender roles. This can limit their freedom to develop autonomous gender identities and reduce their well-being.
And let’s not forget that the harm from sexism associated with sex selection also manifests on a social level. The practice sends out the message that it’s justifiable to create children for particular gender roles. And it re-affirms the idea that sex is a trait of fundamental importance in a child, one that may even be viewed as a condition for parental appreciation.
What’s more, legalising sex selection would be a retrograde step if we consider recent legal and policy developments regarding gender.
In 2013, the High Court ruled that a person can formally identify as having an unspecified gender. The ruling effectively institutionalises a third category of non-specific gender in Australia.
The court’s decision signifies a step away from the dominant binary understanding of gender insofar as it acknowledges the diversity of gender identities. But any deregulation of preconception sex selection would represent a move back towards the binary understanding of sex and gender.
Click here to read the National Health and Medical Research Council’s view of why it’s time to consider allowing sex selection with IVF.