Leading Article: Limits of parental choice

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The Independent Online
THE TECHNIQUE is simple and relatively cheap: for pounds 650, would-be parents can now choose the sex of their baby before fertilisation. The London Gender Clinic is offering a form of artificial insemination in which the father's sperm are separated according to gender, and the mother-to-be is impregnated with selected sperm that should produce a child of the desired sex. The success rate is around 75 per cent and the danger negligible. Most experts predict that the technique will become cheaper, more certain and far simpler. There is talk of a kit similar to those employed in home pregnancy testing.

Artificial insemination by the natural father is uncontentious, and there is relatively little debate about the merit of insemination by donors. Contraception, although opposed by the Roman Catholic Church, arouses little opposition in this country, and more than 180,000 legal abortions are performed each year without engendering anything approaching the bitter 'pro-life' campaigns experienced in the United States. Abortion on demand remains unlawful here, but most women who seek abortions find doctors prepared to sign the necessary documents.

In context it may initially seem surprising that the new technique of gender selection has aroused widespread concern, but this is the case. Dr John Habgood, the Archbishop of York, has called for 'great moral caution', while the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) has invited comments from the public in advance of a report that it will submit to the Government this summer. Meanwhile, the authority has advised the clinics it licenses not to undertake gender selection for social reasons. Legislation outlawing gender choice - except where used to avoid gender-hereditary disease or handicap - may follow the authority's report.

The case against allowing parental choice is complex. On the one hand it is said that this would allow parents to play God while, on the other hand, it would reduce the child to what the HFEA described as 'a consumer good'. Moreover, there is an inbuilt social bias in favour of males in this country, particularly but not exclusively in traditionally minded Asian families. Would parental choice merely reinforce distasteful and outdated prejudices and do harm to the feminist cause? Finally, the pro-male bias, if sufficiently pronounced, could, over time, unbalance the population and create a large pool of unattached and restless young men who might be susceptible to violent crime or to warfare. Yet worldwide, the consequences of tampering with the population balance are more likely to be positive rather than malign because it would erode the tendency to continue to generate children until the requisite number of boys had been reached.

Two years ago, analysing the debate about whether hospitals should allow mothers-to- be to know the sex of their unborn child, we commented that a restrictive policy was unenforceable: 'Now that the technology is available, those who are determined to discover the sex of an unborn child will do so at some stage by fair means or foul.' Similarly, couples who are determined to define the sex of their child prior to contraception will make every effort to do so, whatever the law says. Those who have moral or social doubts about gender choice will have to address the prospect of widespread evasion.