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11 September 2006
Choosing Gender: Unnatural Selection?
by Paul Aitken

Just what is the perfect family? Without getting all political and saying - "Two Gay Moms and their Irrepressible Son (hey now, there's a sitcom)," most of us would say; "Mom, Dad, Boy and Girl." Preferably with the boy being slightly older, so he can beat up any cads that might mess with Baby Sis. It makes sense. In a world where all of life's choices are laid out in an all-you-can-eat style buffet, it seems a shame not to indulge in a little bit of everything. My own parents had a similar propensity. My "Baby Sis" owes her very existence to the fact that I (second born after my brother) turned out to be a boy. I know another family where they gave up after the third boy. If they were guaranteed a girl they would have gone for it but the 50/50 chance of another boy nixed any thought of trying again.

The mathematical probability of having one of each is approximately fifty-fifty. Which doesn't sound so bad, but landing the coveted boy-then-girl combo is only one-in-four. You stand an equal chance of getting the girl-then-boy combo, which leads inevitably to training bras being used as slingshots, amongst other assaults on the dignity of your adolescent daughter.

Given the importance to some couples of avoiding imperfection in their life (you only get one shot at it after all), it's not surprising an increasing number of couples are electing to choose the gender of their baby. Gender selection, or "family balancing" as those in the industry euphemistically call it, is fraught with controversy. But whatever your ethical stance on the practice, you shouldn't deceive yourself into thinking this is something entirely new. Gender selection has been with us a long, long time, and its aim has been squarely fixed on producing boys. Why boys depends on the culture. In European culture males are required to carry on the family name. In India, where dowries are traditionally paid by the family of the bride, daughters are a financial liability. The rationales are not necessarily rational but there's no denying the force of the preference.

Recipes and techniques for assuring a male child go back thousands of years. How effective they were is, ahem, debatable, but you can make your own decision from this list compiled by Letty Pogrebin:

  • The couple should: Have intercourse in dry weather, on a night with a full moon, after a good harvest, and/or when there is a north wind.
  • The man should: Wear boots to bed, get drunk, tie a string around his right testicle, cut off his left testicle, take an ax to bed, hang his pants on the right bedpost, and/or bite his wife's right ear.
  • The woman should: Lie on her right side during intercourse, eat red meat or sour foods, let a small boy step on her hands or sit on her lap on her wedding day, sleep with a small boy on her wedding eve, wear male cloth on her wedding night, and/or pinch her husbands right testicle before intercourse.

Whatever the success of the above methods, the only sure method of selecting a child of the correct gender was (and still is) to deselect those of incorrect gender. Up until the last few decades, the only method of deselection was infanticide. While most of us view the very idea of infanticide as a moral abomination, it's worth noting that the practice of killing girl babies has been practiced on every continent by cultures of every level of complexity including, until recently, Europe. It's thought that the primary rationale behind infanticide is as a check on resource utilization. According to anthropological data, higher rates of infanticide correlate strongly with harsh economic conditions. Darwin himself speculated that female infanticide was the most important check on the population growth of early man, which makes sense when one considers that the fecundity of any given population is directly dependant on the number of fertile women available to give birth.

While female infanticide is still a fact of life in rural India and some parts of Africa, its application worldwide has receded with the rising living standards of the last two centuries. Female deselection, however, continues unabated. In China and India particularly, the method of choice now is abortion. Thanks to amniocentesis and ultrasound imaging, the sex of a boy can be determined as soon it's old enough to grow a discernable dick (10-14 weeks). While the practice of sex-selective abortion has been outlawed in both countries, these laws are somewhat ineffectual. Enforcement is lax or non-existent and the practice has ballooned to the extent that the sex-ratio at birth is 117 boys to 100 girls in China. In parts of India the figure is as high as 125 boys to 100 girls! Worldwide it has been estimated that up to 100 million females have been deselected since the introduction of in utero gender determining technologies.

So, let's say you're ready to action your procreative perfection checklist but you're not up to aborting a perfectly healthy fetus. How do you go about ensuring your preferred gender? Well, right now the only sure means is through an in vitro fertilization technique called Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD). PGD was initially developed (and intended) to screen for diseases caused by single genetic mutations such as Tay-Sachs, Huntington's and cystic fibrosis, as well as chromosomal abnormalities. As such it's been a boon to families with a legacy of genetic disease who don't want to pass it on to their children. But like many technologies, the original purpose of PGD has been dwarfed by an unintended application. In this case, gender screening. PGD is barely a decade old but already it's believed that the majority of parents use it to ensure the preferred sex of their children. It's also interesting to note that most of these parents (in the West, at any rate) want a girl. Most have boys already and are willing to cough up the $18,000 plus cost of the PGD process to ensure for themselves a "balanced" family.

PGD involves the harvesting of eggs (usually several) from the mother and fertilizing them in vitro from the father's sperm. After three days, when the embryos are still in the blastocyst stage, a cell is removed from each and a biopsy performed. If the cell contains a Y chromosome, they know it's a boy. Embryos of the chosen gender are then implanted in the mother's uterus. If they implant successfully, the parents are assured of the gender of their choice. But note that what is happening here is still deselection. No fetuses are aborted, but certain embryos are not implanted. The rest are either frozen or discarded. Now, I personally don't have problem with this. A blastocyst, to me, is nothing more than a collection of cells as impersonal as those that slough off my skin everyday. But to those of a certain ethical or ideological persuasion, PGD deselection is no different than abortion of infanticide.

So what can you do if you want a specific gender but are unwilling to deselect a living entity? The only option then available to you is to select the sperm carrying either the X or Y chromosomes. But even in our age of daily technical triumphs and medical miracles, this ain't easy. There are currently two methods of selecting sperm. The first and oldest, known as the Ericsson Method employs the principle that Y sperm are lighter and swim faster. Unfortunately, theory is no match for reality. Recent studies have shown that this method and others like it score little better than 50/50 in sperm selection. Most of the success of the Ericsson Method (73 percent success rate for boys) is attributed to ovulatory timing, which is a real factor in determining gender.

A more promising sperm sorting technology is the MicroSort method originally developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to sort livestock sperm. MicroSort technology works by mixing sperm with a DNA-specific dye. The X chromosomes, being larger, soak up more dye. The sperm are then exposed to an electrical field which gives the X and Y sperm different charges and allows them to be sorted accordingly. The technique is expensive at $2,500 a shot (a little less if you're a cow), and it's far from perfect, but it's better than ovulatory timing. It's also statistically more effective for those who want girls (91 percent) vs those who want boys (76 percent).

Of course, even sperm selection (or deselection) is not free from controversy. There are a number of ethicists, philosophers and feminists who decry any attempt at gender selection. Given the potential for using the above technologies to deselect females, feminists have been particularly vociferous on the issue. But I believe their dark foreboding is premature. Yes, female deselection, as evidenced by the skewed gender ratio in Asia, is commonplace. But far from contributing to the devaluation of women, this skewed gender ratio may be the best thing that ever happened to women in these parts of the world. Value is a function of scarcity and need. In less than a generation, every women of marriageable age in India and China will have 1.2 men to choose from. And given the importance of marriage and pair- bonding in all cultures, their value is about to skyrocket.

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