TOPIC GUIDE: Sex Selection
"The UK ban on using assisted reproductive technology for sex-selection should be lifted"
PUBLISHED: 01 Aug 2013
AUTHOR: Tony Gilland & Ed Noel
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Attempts by parents to influence their chances of giving birth to a baby of a specific sex, historically usually a boy, are as old as civilization. Whether involving unusual diets or specific sexual positions, efforts have been both unscientific and unsuccessful. Recent scientific advances have transformed this age-old desire of some parents into a genuine, if expensive, choice. Sperm-sorting technology, where sperm is filtered according to whether it is carrying the X or Y chromosomes and used to either inseminate directly or – via In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF) – to create an embryo in the laboratory to be implanted in the womb, has a 70-80% accuracy rating. Even more accurate is Pre-Implantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD), in which male and female embryos are produced, and an embryo of the selected sex is implanted [Ref: Wellcome Trust]. However, in the UK it is illegal for licensed fertility clinics to offer sex selection except for medical reasons –assisted reproductive technology (ART) can only be legally used to choose the sex of a child when it is medically justified to avoid producing a child with a serious sex-linked genetic disorder such as Duchenne muscular dystrophy or Haemophilia A [Ref: BioNews]. In some other countries, most notably the United States, fertility clinics may offer sex-selection services entirely legally and there are numerous reports of British couples travelling abroad to make use of them [Ref: Evening Standard]. Is it time, as some have recently argued, for UK authorities to adopt a more liberal approach to reproductive choice and allow sex selection for non-medical reasons?
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Sex Selection DEBATE IN CONTEXT
This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.
Parental choice and societal concerns
The UK body which regulates the provision of ART treatments – most notably IVF and complementary treatments such as PGD – is the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA). Following an HFEA public consultation exercise some years earlier, and debate in Parliament and elsewhere, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008 introduced an explicit ban on selecting the sex of offspring for social reasons [Ref: HFEA]. One major societal concern raised about allowing sex-selection for social reasons is the danger of it resulting in a skewed population towards one gender – males. Those arguing for the UK ban to be lifted point out that whilst skewed populations, driven by preferences for male children, may be a legitimate concern in countries such as India and China, there is no evidence that this would be the case in the UK where, they argue, would-be parents are as likely to want to choose a girl as a boy [Ref: Independent]. Others counter that lifting the ban would, nevertheless, undermine the importance of women’s equality “in communities where sex-selection for male children is most likely to occur” and that this provides sufficient reason for the continuation of the prohibition [Ref: IJFAB]. Another argument made by the HFEA for the prohibition was that 80% of respondents to its public consultation objected to sex-selection for non-medical reasons; though a leading ethicist points out that such views are based on what has been dubbed the “wisdom of repugnance” and do not provide any ethical basis for prohibition at all [Ref: Practical Ethics].
Welfare of the child
The HFE Act of 2008 places a requirement on clinics to take account of ‘the welfare of the child’ when providing fertility treatment. Though the risks associated with PGD are relatively low, critics of sex-selection argue that if there is no benefit to the child to be born – only its parents – any risk is unacceptable. The other major ‘welfare-of-the-child’ concern raised by sex-selection is the potential impact on the psychological welfare of the child that is born. Critics argue that the desire to have a child of a specific sex is based on stereotypical assumptions about the behavioural characteristics of each sex, old-fashioned notions that boys and girls should be raised differently and, in these enlightened times, such gender stereotypes are surely outdated? [Ref: Patheos]. For others it is perfectly understandable why parents with several children of one-sex might want to choose to have a child of the opposite sex and to have the “kind of relationship they feel will only be possible” with a child of that sex [Ref: Independent]. Furthermore, as one defender of parental choice argues, “why should parental expectation be stigmatised” when parental expectations are an integral and creative aspect of family relations? [Ref: spiked]. On the other-hand, do we really want to be in a situation where choosing the sex of your child is offered as a retail choice – albeit, at around $20,000, currently a very expensive choice? [Ref: National Post].
One of the key arguments made for the lifting of the UK’s prohibition on sex-selection is that it is unethical and unjustified because the reasons given for the prohibition do not warrant trampling on the principle of reproductive freedom [Ref: IJFAB]. The bioethicist Professor John Harris has argued that it is fundamental to liberal democracy that “the liberty of its citizens should not be abridged unless good and sufficient cause can be shown as to why this is required” [Ref: Journal of Medical Ethics]. On this basis the case against the prohibition does not turn on the merits of using sex-selection for social reasons, but on whether the likely consequences of allowing parents to do so if they wish are sufficiently problematic to outweigh the principle of reproductive freedom. Others argue that when it comes to ART, which opens up all manner of possibilities not available to parents conceiving naturally, the question of reproductive freedom takes on a new dimension. From this perspective, making the sex of your child a legitimate choice sets society on a slippery slope to even more problematic attempts to design our children: from eye colour to skin colour or even intelligence [Ref: New Scientist].
It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.
Stevienna de Saille BioNews 28 March 2011
Amanda Mitchison Guardian 3 April 2010
Stephen Wilkinson & Eve Garrard International Journal of Feminist Approaches to Bioethics (IJFAB) 16 August 2013
Steve Connor Independent 3 July 2013
Julian Savulescu Practical Ethics 13 January 2011
John Harris Journal of Medical Ethics 2005
Frank Furedi spiked 2 December 2003
Alana Cattapan International Journal of Feminist Approaches to Bioethics (IJFAB) 13 August 2013
Kishwar Desai Guardian 6 July 2013
Melanie McDonagh Telegraph 6 July 2013
Ellen Painter Dollar Patheos 24 September 2012
Jasmeet Sidhu Slate 14 September 2012
Stephen Wilkinson & Eve Garrard Keele University Press 2013
Prof. Lawrence Nelson The Technological Citizen 20 October 2009
Michael Sandel Atlantic April 2004
Gender Selection 101
Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.
Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.
New Scientist 10 July 2013
John A Robdertson & Timothy Hickman Contemorary OB/GYN 1 July 2013
The World Outline 5 March 2013
Youtube 16 December 2011
Mark Henderson The Times 22 August 2009
CNN 11 February 2009
Mark Henderson The Times 17 October 2007
Human Genetics Alert Campaign Briefing December 2002
Gender Selection Authority
Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.
IN THE NEWS
Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.
Telegraph 3 July 2013
BioNews 3 September 2012
Evening Standard 28 August 2012
National Post 17 April 2012
BBC News 12 March 2012
Guardian 23 February 2012
BioNews 21 February 2012
BioNews 23 January 2012
Daily Mail 13 February 2011
BBC News 29 October 2008
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