Sexing Babies

Will sex selection create a violent world without women?


"Sex selection will cause a severe imbalance of the sexes," predicted left-wing sociologist Amitai Etzioni way back in 1968. Etzioni further prophesied that the practice would "soon" condemn millions of men to rape, prostitution, homosexuality, or enforced celibacy.

More recently, Brigham Young University political scientist Valerie M. Hudson and University of Kent research fellow Andrea M. den Boer argued in their book Bare Branches: The Security Implications of Asia's Surplus Male Population that growing sex ratio imbalances resulting from sex selection in China will create a hoodlum army of 30 million single men that by 2020 will be a menace to world peace.

Sex selection in India and China is achieved chiefly through ultrasound scans followed by the selective abortion of female fetuses. The natural sex ratio is about 105 boys per 100 girls, but in India it is now 113 boys per 100 girls and as high as 156 boys per 100 girls in some regions.

In China the sex ratio now is just shy of 120 boys per 100 girls. Both China and India now ban the use of abortion for sex selection. Should those of us living in the developed world worry about skewed sex ratios in our own countries? After all, all sorts of nifty new biomedical technologies besides selective abortions are becoming available to make sex selection ever more feasible.

For example, the Genetics and IVF (GIVF) Institute in Fairfax, Virginia, is pioneering preconception sex selection by means of a system that segregates sperm that will produce girls from those that will produce boys. Joseph Schulman, the founder of GIVF, explained how his clinic's MicroSort sperm-segregation system works at the First International Conference on Ethics, Science and Moral Philosophy of Assisted Human Reproduction at the Royal Society in London last week.

MicroSort technology tags sperm bearing X chromosomes (those which determine females) and sperm bearing Y chromosomes (those which determine males) with a fluorescent dye so that they can be segregated into different batches. The dye harmlessly attaches to the DNA molecules that make up genes. Female-determining X chromosomes are much bigger than male-determining Y chromosomes, which means that human sperm carrying X chromosomes have 2.8 percent more DNA than do sperm with Y chromosomes.

Thus, X-sperm soak up more of the fluorescent dye and glow more brightly. This difference in brightness allows flow cytometry machines to detect and separate the X- from the Y-bearing sperm. The sperm-separating technique is not perfect: According to the latest data, batches of sperm intended to produce males typically contain 75 percent Y chromosome sperm. The female batches contain 91 percent X chromosome sperm.

Once the sperm have been segregated, they may be used in either artificial insemination or in vitro fertilization to produce a child of the desired sex. Using sex-segregated sperm in artificial insemination sidesteps the contentious debate over the moral status of embryos, since fertilization takes place straight in the would-be mothers' wombs. The cost per cycle of MicroSort's service is about $3,000.

For those worried about whether such sex selection technology will radically skew U.S. sex ratios, Schulman's clinical data should be soothing. Of the more than 3,000 sperm-sorting cycles requested by patients, 77 percent have been seeking to produce girls. Most parents want to use MicroSort to achieve "family balancing," that is, to have a child of the opposite sex to the first one, or to balance out families that now have all girls or all boys.

Another reason to use sperm segregation is to avoid the 500 or so inheritable X-linked diseases, such as hemophilia, that afflict boys. Boys are more vulnerable to these diseases because they inherit only a single X chromosome from their mothers, whereas girls inherit two, one from each parent. If there is a faulty gene on one X chromosome, the undamaged one on the other X chromosome shields girls from its deleterious effects. But boys, who have only one X chromosome paired with a much smaller Y chromosome, will suffer from the disease if they inherit the X chromosome with the faulty gene.

More evidence that the West was unlikely to go the way of China and India was presented at the Royal Society conference by German bioethicist Edgar Dahl from the University of Giessen. He cited updated surveys from Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States that found no strong gender preferences.

In Germany, 76 percent of respondents didn't care about the sex of their first child, while 14 percent would prefer a boy and 10 percent would prefer a girl. When asked if they might consider using MicroSort, 94 percent of Germans rejected it out of hand. When asked if they might consider using cost-free magic pills, a pink one for girls and a blue one for boys, to select their children's sex, 92 said no, they'd turn down those pills.

Seventy-three percent of Britons had no preference about the sex of their first-born child. Sixty-eight percent of Britons would like to have equal numbers of girls and boys in their families, compared to only 30 percent of Germans. A majority of Americans did express a preference about the sex of their first-born: 39 percent would prefer a boy and 19 percent would prefer a girl. Forty-nine percent of Americans wanted an equal number of boys and girls in their families, and 18 percent could imagine taking advantage of MicroSort-type sex selection service.

Dahl argued that the only valid justification for limiting parents' liberty to select their children's sex might be a clear and present threat that a society's sex ratio is about to become radically unbalanced. "In the West, there is no evidence at all that there is a threat to the sex ratio," Dahl concluded. So Etzioni's dire predictions have proven to be wrong; allowing parents in the West access to sex selection won't result in bands of violent horny young men whose only access to sex is rape, prostitution, or homosexuality.

During the question-and-answer period at the Royal Society conference, a physician from India claimed that if MicroSort became widely available in his country, 90 percent of parents would choose to have only boys. Thus, he argued, sex selection should be banned there. However, the physician noted that skewed sex ratios seem to be a problem chiefly in the Hindu community. Indian Muslim and Christian sex ratios were close to the natural rate. He also noted that in families in which the women were literate, the sex ratios are also close to the natural rate. "That seems to me to make a strong case, not for banning sex selection, but for more and better education of women," replied Dahl. Seems about right to me too.