A personal selection

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The Independent Online
I FIND the question of whether couples should be able to select the sex of their children more than a little fascinating, for the very personal reason that I have three children of the same sex. If someone had advertised a service enabling me to choose the gender of my second child, I would certainly have been tempted.

There are those who argue that gender selection is unnatural and therefore undesirable. But ever since I have been sexually active there has been massive intervention in the business of reproduction and pregnancy, and most of us think that a jolly good thing.

Since the Sixties women have had unprecedented power to control their fertility and prevent unwanted pregnancies through the use of the pill. There has also been, quite understandably, a large demand for infertility treatment and couples who 50 years ago would have remained helplessly childless have had their lives enriched. There has been a dramatic rise in the number of grossly premature babies nursed to survival. There is also surgery on foetuses in the womb. All these, you could say, unnaturally meddle with the process of reproduction, but who would argue against them in the name of humanity?

One of the major benefits of the contraceptive pill is that parents can restrict the number of children they bear, with all the beneficial economic advantages that this brings both to them and to the planet. If having smaller families is our ideal, is it so terrible to allow sex selection of the second child as a quid pro quo?

But in catering to such basic human desires, there are clear problems to address. It opens up the prospect of exploitation. It is impossible for a lay person to know whether the London Gender Clinic, at the centre of the current debate, can deliver what it promises. Eminent doctors, led by Professor Robert Winston, gynaecologist and infertility expert, are casting doubts on the techniques used of separating the male- and female-determining sex sperm. But since they themselves offer sex selection to women with gender-related hereditary illnesses, it is clear that valid techniques do exist. It should not be beyond the wit of man to devise some form of registration, if only of requiring sex-selection clinics and services to publish their success rates.

If one moral objection to the new clinic is that it could lead to more abortions, then we need look no further than current practice. You can go to Harley Street, pay pounds 300 and discover very early in a pregnancy, through genetic testing, the sex of your child. You have to sign a form promising not to abort if the foetus is not what you wish. But since abortion is pretty well available on demand, through quite separate agencies, no one would be able to hold you to your pledge.

The other, and perhaps more difficult, objection is that sex selection will be largely used by those ethnic groups with a cultural preference for boys. However, I am unhappy in advancing this as a reason to prevent a new service starting up, especially as it is not an attitude restricted solely to other cultures from other lands.

Those who doubt me should read the Hansard reports of last November on the Hereditary Peerages Bill. The debate, promoted by Lord Diamond, was over an anti-discrimination Bill allowing an elder daughter to inherit a title: as he pointed out, 97.5 per cent of hereditary peers are male; there is only a small category of peerages where daughters can inherit. Lord Diamond was shot down by his less enlightened peers. To contrast their antediluvian attitude, several feminist friends say they are in favour of gender selection because it will allow them to choose girls. But frankly, most of us are delighted simply to produce healthy babies.

If the medical means exist and the need exists, the two sides will meet up somehow. The practice of gender selection has arrived and will spread among the small minority of people to whom it really matters. It is better this should be done openly through accountable clinics than clandestinely for those in the know. I have no doubt this is simply one more adaptation we will have to make, and the human race will soldier on.