Leading Article: Parents who choose their child's gender

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The Independent Online
SHE WILL never be so celebrated as Louise Brown, the world's first test-tube baby, who is now approaching her 16th birthday. But Sophie May Clark, the child born in Britain amid controversy after a process of 'gender selection', will certainly merit at least a footnote in the history books of medical ethics.

It is tempting to react with horror to the idea of parents playing God, deciding whether to have a boy or a girl. More distasteful still are the high fees that the clinics charge for a success rate barely

20 per cent better than nature unaided. But should parents be forbidden to choose a baby's sex before conception?

If interference with nature were to be outlawed per se, fertility treatment, in-vitro fertilisation and genetic engineering would all be illegal - and so would abortion and contraception. The fact that gender choice seems a trivial use of scarce scientific resources may make it inappropriate for the health service. But it need not prevent parents from paying for such a service if they wish to.

Some who want gender selection to be made illegal believe that its widespread use could eventually lead to gender imbalance. If it became available in the world's poorer countries, where boys are valued more highly than girls for various social and economic reasons, might not the result be an excess of men in the developing world? It might. But, equally, the resulting imbalances might right themselves.

As girls became scarcer, their dowries would shrink to nothing, then turn negative; and instead of being able to demand money for marrying, husbands would be forced by scarcity to pay dowries to their wives' families.

In any case, sex discrimination is under pressure from pragmatism, even in countries such as India and China. Countries where women are encouraged to stay at home and look after the children, and perhaps even forbidden to vote or to drive a car, are coming to realise that their position in the next century will depend on putting the talents of their populations to best use. That means liberating women. As the greater value of women sinks in, the pressures on parents to have male children will diminish.

But there is one overwhelming reason for the state to hold back from regulation. Couples who are truly determined to have a child of one sex rather than another will not be put off their resolve by the closure of gender-choice clinics. They will merely resort to aborting female foetuses abroad - or, in extreme cases, to infanticide. Whatever one thinks of gender selection, these two evils must be worse.