John Harris: The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority's report on sex selection must be rejected

From a speech on sex selection by the Professor of Bioethics at Manchester university to The Progress Educational Trust

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, in its report on sex selection, commit themselves to what may be called the liberal presumption: "The main argument against prohibiting sex selection for non-medical reasons is that it concerns that most intimate aspect of family life, the decision to have children. This is an area of private life in which people are generally best left to make their own choices and in which the state should intervene only to prevent the occurrence of serious harms."

In this report, however, the HFEA simply surrender to the hostility to gender selection of a majority (not of citizens but of respondents to a highly limited and parochial consultation) and give, in the end, no weight to this important liberal principle. The HFEA, in effect, rely on the following very limited arguments against gender selection: "The most persuasive arguments for restricting access to sex selection technologies ... are related to the welfare of the children and families concerned." The HFEA then glosses this concern for children by noting that: "Children selected for their sex alone may be in some way psychologically damaged by the knowledge that they had been selected in this way."

But they produce no evidence that children would be selected for their sex alone. This is the point which derives from Kantian ethics, that individuals must be treated as ends in themselves and not as mere means. However, it is difficult to find evidence that if people are treated as means they are treated as mere means or exclusively as means. It is unlikely that children selected for gender would be selected solely for their gender.

The illiberalism of this conclusion and the poverty of the arguments produced to defend and sustain it make it imperative that this report is not only rejected but that it be recognised for what it is - an attempt to formalise the tyranny of the majority and to institutionalise contempt for the principles of liberal democracy.