Should we be allowed to choose the sex of our children?

Last week a Scottish couple were refused permission to choose whether their next child is a boy or a girl. They plan to challenge the ban in court
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Indy Lifestyle Online

STEPHEN LAW : Whenever genetic modification or selection is discussed, two bogeymen always threaten to pop up and stifle rational debate: Hitler and Frankenstein. All of us are familiar with the link between genetics, eugenics and the Nazi pursuit of racial purity. And most of us are at least a little afraid that meddling geneticists could create a monster. So compelling can this vision be that almost every development in the field induces a certain amount of panic. Consider the case of Alan and Louise Masterton, who recently lost their three-year-old daughter Nicole. Louise was sterilised after Nicole was born, and so can now conceive only through IVF. The Mastertons are insistent that, while they do not wish to replace Nicole, they would very much like another girl. IVF could guarantee they get one. Several eggs will be fertilised and screened, the most viable being implanted in Louise's womb. It would be easy to select just female eggs. But the couple's request has been rejected by the Human Fert

STEPHEN LAW : Whenever genetic modification or selection is discussed, two bogeymen always threaten to pop up and stifle rational debate: Hitler and Frankenstein. All of us are familiar with the link between genetics, eugenics and the Nazi pursuit of racial purity. And most of us are at least a little afraid that meddling geneticists could create a monster. So compelling can this vision be that almost every development in the field induces a certain amount of panic. Consider the case of Alan and Louise Masterton, who recently lost their three-year-old daughter Nicole. Louise was sterilised after Nicole was born, and so can now conceive only through IVF. The Mastertons are insistent that, while they do not wish to replace Nicole, they would very much like another girl. IVF could guarantee they get one. Several eggs will be fertilised and screened, the most viable being implanted in Louise's womb. It would be easy to select just female eggs. But the couple's request has been rejected by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, which regulates IVF, so they plan to use the European Convention on Human Rights to gain permission for treatment.

Why have the Mastertons been denied this choice? The answer is fear - the instinctive fear that this would be to step on to the slippery slope that ends with Frankenstein and Hitler. But the fear is largely an irrational one.

 

BLAKE MORRISON : Morality is often slow to catch up with science. If transplants, cloning, embryo screening and other forms of medical intervention allow us to reduce disease and premature death, we shouldn't agonise over the ethics but rejoice. But is gender a disease? Parents who lament the make-up of their progeny - "if only we had a boy" - are rightly regarded with suspicion, since they seem more in love with notional children than with real ones. To wish for a "balanced" family is human. To engineer one suggests a control-freakery verging on the inhuman. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority might reasonably have let the Mastertons go ahead on compassionate grounds. But what's now being sought - making the choice of gender a fundamental human right - is a step too far.

 

SL I see no compelling reason to turn down the Mastertons. It seems churlish to refuse an opportunity that is a by-product of the treatment they will undergo anyway. To allow selection under these unusual circumstances is not, of course, to suggest that fertile couples should be allowed to use IVF to determine sex. Nor is it to allow IVF patients to select for other attributes - hair and eye colour, for example, nor to condone sex-selection by abortion.

 

BM The freedom to manipulate choice of gender will be abused. I'm not sure which is the more dystopian: a future where one sex is so out of favour that only a few freak representatives of it are born; or one where the state sticks its nose in and operates strict "quotas". All that's a long way off, it's true. What's wrong with parents who have had only girls, say, being allowed a boy at last, to "even things out"? But where do you decide to draw the line? How many children of one sex would have to exist before a couple were permitted to have one of the opposite sex? Five? Four? Three? Two? One? Or could the sex of every child be predetermined?

 

SL Abused? This case doesn't mean giving the go-ahead to gene-splicing - taking Einstein's gene for intelligence, say, and Marilyn Monroe's gene for attractiveness and gluing them together to create a super-baby (assuming that were even possible). Allowing the Mastertons to select a fertilised egg on the basis of sex does not mean opening the door to any of these other things.

I am not suggesting that sex-selection by IVF be made available to all. But suppose it were. How bad would that be? Some social groups have a strong preference for one sex. Might the result of introducing choice for all be a serious imbalance in the ratio of boys to girls? Moreover, given the choice, some individuals may choose for all the wrong reasons, perhaps even out of bigotry. These are causes for concern. But is the best solution to deny choice to everyone, even those who want a baby for all the right reasons? I'm not convinced it is. Perhaps we would do better to tackle the bigotry.

 

BM The deeper issue is that of control. To exercise choice can be a wonderful thing, but to eliminate all element of chance in life is robotic. Many parents prefer not even to know in advance what sex their child will be, let alone determine it. Birth is one of the last great mysteries, and its awe derives in part from our uncertainty at what will emerge. Eyes, nose, hair, gender, colour of skin: would we want to live with the responsibility of having to choose them all, and of having to justify those choices when our children are old enough to complain that we chose badly? The great virtue of not choosing is that we recognise children as separate entities, beyond our keeping, not as toy models we create piece by piece from construction kits.

 

Dr Stephen Law is a lecturer in philosophy at London University and author of 'The Philosophy Files'.

Blake Morrison is a poet and author of 'And When Did You Last See Your Father?' and 'As If'.

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