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IVF Sex Selection means lots of small choices for parents and one big effect

Medical ethicists say there is no reason why mothers and fathers should not choose their child's gender - but what about the long-term practical effects?

According to a group of leading medical ethicists, there is no moral justification for maintaining the ban on parents selecting the sex of their offspring. With modern in vitro technology rendering the choice so easy to make, there is no principled reason why prospective mothers and fathers should not take the concept of family planning one step further, they say.

For those with an enthusiasm for scientific progress and a basic belief in individual choice – a group which includes this newspaper – the claim is an appealing one. It is even more so for the parents of lop-sided families keen to even out the balance.

Neither is Professor Stephen Wilkinson wrong, when considering the matter in purely moral terms. For all the sermonising about meddling and unnaturalness that such questions routinely provoke, there is no more reason to baulk at the ethics of sex selection than there is to frown upon IVF itself, say.

The issue is not about morality alone, though. There are also practical implications; and when it comes to the possible consequences of unfettered parental choice, the case for sticking with nature’s in-built equilibrium swiftly overwhelms all other considerations. For all the desirability of individual freedom, the cumulative effect may be anything but.

For real-world case studies, one need look no further than those countries where sex selection is – legally or not – already common. In China, there are some 34 million more males than females. Meanwhile, India has a 37 million-strong overload of males. Social scientists warn of spiking crime rates (particularly sexual crime), an escalation of political extremism and a material threat to social stability as so many young boys, with no prospect of marriage or family life, reach adulthood.

It would be nice to hope that Britain’s approach to gender is more enlightened. The economic pressures are certainly different. For all our progress, however, sex-based stereotyping remains a pernicious and distorting force. Nor, indeed, would an excess of females be any more desirable than an excess of males. And it would be reckless to assume that millions of separate choices, even disinterested ones, would produce a nationwide symmetry.

That human populations stabilise at a broadly even ratio of males to females may be critical to social cohesion and endurance. We tinker with the balance at our peril.