Public Release: 

Sex selection for social reasons: religious and moral perspectives

Science and Religion Information Service

Two reports in the 25 September 2003 issue of Human Reproduction suggest that the coming availability of sex selection technology is not likely to skew the balance between the sexes. Two experts in religion and reproductive technology respond to this report and to the way it might be used in the ethics and public policy debate over the availability of sex selection technology.

All quotes are free to use by journalists in any news medium. Contact information is provided and follow-up interviews are encouraged.

1. Statement by Karen Lebacqz, Ph.D., an expert in religious and feminist bioethics and professor, Pacific School of Religion, Berkeley, CA.
"According to this survey, allowing sex selection in Germany and in the UK would be unlikely to skew the 'gender' balance. Authors mean the 'sex' balance, since the issue is biological sex at birth, not gender. Gender is a learned social position. One can be born female but grow up to live and work as a man. One can be born male but grow up to live and work as a woman.

"Thus, the first questions that come to my mind in response to this announcement are: why do we equate sex with gender, and why do we fear a gender imbalance? Many societies experience times when there is an imbalance in biological sexes, and they make interesting adaptations. They may permit polygamy, raise a 'male' child into a female role, encourage or at least not punish same-sex partnerships, etc. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with having an imbalance of biological sex in a society. Why, then, is it such an issue?

"The answer is surely because we presume that a great imbalance in sex distribution will correlate with an imbalance in social power as well. For example, what if the results of this survey were different? What if 95% of respondents in one or both places wanted a girl child first? Or wanted girl children exclusively, and would use the technology to ensure their preferences? Would there then be great public resistance? I suspect so! But would the resistance be based on a fear of sex 'imbalance' or would it be based on a resistance to women taking over the world?

"Finally, we must ask why people would not use technology when they have a strong desire to have "one of each." Suppose the first child is a boy. If, as was strongly the case in the UK, they then want a girl, why not use technology to get this result? The rather strong resistance to the use of technology (or was it to the money needed to secure it?!) suggests that many people think there is something intrinsically wrong with using technology to satisfy our desires for children of a particular sex. Perhaps it is one of the few places of 'wonder' left in our world and we are wise to resist controlling every aspect of human life."

2. Statement by Brent Waters, D.Phil., author of "Reproductive Technology: Toward a Theology of Procreative Stewardship." Director, The Jerre L. and Mary Joy Center for Ethics and Values and Associate Professor of Christian Social Ethics at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Evanston, IL.
"The conclusion of the report presumably reassures us that we need not worry about sex selection techniques because the ill-effect of skewing gender balance will not occur. The majority of parents do not intend to use this technology--at least not in Germany and the United Kingdom.

"There are two reasons, however, why we should be skeptical about this reassuring conclusion. First, we do not know how parents would respond outside of these two European cultures. Whether gender balance becomes skewed if sex selection techniques were readily available in cultures placing a higher value on one sex or the other remains an open question. This is especially the case in regimes attempting to restrict population growth.

"Second, gender balance is not the only ethical issue at stake. It is simply assumed that selecting the sex of offspring is a matter of preference and not morality. Yet it is at least arguable that parenthood is characterized by the unconditional rather than conditional acceptance of children, a quality that is clearly eroded by the availability of sex selection technology. The way the research for this report was conducted merely reinforces the growing perception of children as commodities satisfying the desires of their parents.

"Sex selection technology is but one more tool for developing a market in desirable children. The most promising aspect of this report is the fact that most respondents have no intention of using sex selection techniques, reflecting, I believe, a moral intuition that there is something inherently wrong with the process itself. That is a healthy perception that needs to be reinforced through laws and policies governing the availability and use of selection technology."

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