Embryo Sex Selection and the Idealization of the Family

In a recently published report Dr Eve Garrard and Professor Steve Wilkinson argue that there is nothing unethical about embryological sex selection. Indeed, in the name of choice and allowing parents to fulfill their desires for male or female offspring, they argue that such selection should be available to those who want or, at least, those who can afford it. Their views go beyond permitting ‘family-balancing’ i.e. allowing those with 5 boys to finally have the girl they, or at least one of them, has always wanted. The author’s views support those who only desire a child or children of a particular sex. Whilst the report has much to recommend it - many of the arguments and much of the discussion they offer is clear, informative and fulfills what they call their fundamental aim, to be illuminating - there is something missing from the analysis. 

The report, and its discussion, proceeds in largely asocial terms meaning that the family and parenthood are implicitly considered natural kinds. Thus the desire for a ‘balanced’ family or to parent a girl rather than a boy is constructed as an authentic desire. It is therefore construed as a legitimate and innocuous personal preference in the fulfillment of a - perhaps even the or the only - universal human purpose. However when they quote mothers who have a deep-seated desire to parent a girl it is clear that what they want is a particular, and gendered, relationship. Such relationships are fundamentally social and contain a normative dimension. This is not the formal normativity of an ethical rule but the cultural normativity of a gender role and of gendered relationships. Furthermore roles such as motherhood, fatherhood and being a daughter or a son are fundamentally relational, they exist between individuals. They are a function of society and are not the property of the individual in grand (cultural) isolation. 

Whilst sex selection might make it more likely that the desired relationship will result it is, of course, no guarantee. Gender roles are subject to cultural changes, they can become more and less prescriptive: masculinity and femininity do not have to be understood as binary or, in some sense, opposite. Consequently we might reflect on what may result from the introduction of sex selection when the implicit function or use of such selection is as a proxy for selecting gender. Might it, for example, contribute to a retrenchment of ‘traditional’ gender roles? 

The idea of traditional gender roles reveals something else about the report. The way ‘mainstream’ bioethics constructs the family, parenthood, and gender means that they or, rather, their current forms as found in western societies are not understood as objects with a history but as objects at the end of history, as morally neutral or, perhaps, as ethically correct. This is perhaps clearest in the case of the family, something Pierre Bourdieu called a real-ised social fiction. It is clear that the idea(l) of a nuclear family plays a role in the question of family balancing. As posed the concern is not simply about the desire or one or both parents to have a child of a particular sex but to have a family of a particular type, with a particular make-up, constitution or look. 

Whilst gender balancing is most often discussed in cases of parents who wish to have a child of the sex/ gender opposite to that of their existing children[2] the report makes clear that selecting to have an only child of a particular sex or ‘one of each’ is also acceptable, (bio)ethically speaking. 

Of course the authors of the report are concerned about the consequences of sex selection in countries such as China and India. Others have reiterated these concerns whilst attending to the global context. However the report considers only the national context and here in the UK we do not, apparently, hold any relevant cultural prejudices, or at least not in a sufficiently prevalent manner as to be ‘substantially harmful.’ Thus concerns about the distribution of sex in the UK population as a whole cannot, here and now, be considered a good reason to thwart the free choices of citizens. 

However, these free choices are not ‘free’ in the sense that they represent unfettered, objective and reflective decision-making. Rather these ‘choices’ result from desires that are deeply embedded in a particular and normative cultural context. The introduction of sex selection will introduce a biological procedure into the social realization of the family unit; a biological procedure that, unlike the various ‘folk’ methods that have been thought to increase the chances of boys rather than girls, can virtually guarantee the sex, but not the gender, of a child. 

Whilst the nuclear family is a powerful cultural norm the social reality is very different. We should, I think, reflect on the role sex selection might play in reinforcing the cultural norm and the consequences it might have for not only the homogenization of UK society but the potential to (re)stigmatize those who live differently. Will sex selection contribute to the sum total of human, or even ‘British’, freedom or will it contribute to a retrenchment, a social realization, of an imagined society that few of us would in fact consider ideal?  

[1] The report was written whist Prof Wilkinson was at Keele. 

[2] It is not, of course, the existing children who wish an opposite sex sibling, thus a ‘balanced’ family is not the wish of the family per se, but the parents.