Editor's Note: Sex selection procedures now guarantee parents an almost 100 percent success rate in choosing the gender of their child. Gender selection is becoming increasingly popular in the United States, but it is also becoming increasingly controversial as many question the ethical implications of such procedures.
Gender roles and expectations have been articulated on the assumption of male dominance and female subordination, and rooted in the view that man is the norm and woman a deviation from the norm, i.e., the pathological. Worldwide struggle of women has been to challenge these views with the goal of achieving gender equality and justice. And this has been an uphill battle which continues to this day. Progress to achieve
gender equality is now being tested by new developing technologies such as
microarray screening technologies for routine prenatal care. These technologies are effective means for prenatal diagnosis and pre-birth sex determination. Women are free to use prenatal information to decide whether to continue a pregnancy. As a general rule, she is not required to offer any specific reasons for deciding to abort a pre-viable fetus. However, if she volunteers information as to why she requests an abortion, her physician may be ethically justified to refuse performing the medical procedure for the reasons given by the woman.
Abortion for medical reasons should raise few ethical objections, since parental intent is to prevent the birth of a child with serious medical conditions. For example, the pregnant woman may be a carrier of a sex-linked genetic disorder and there is a 50% chance she will pass on the condition to her male child. Sex-linked disorders are serious enough to warrant pregnancy termination and the treating physician should readily assist the pregnant woman in this difficult and stressful situation and time is of the essence.
Abortion for non-medical reasons, however, raises serious ethical and societal questions. For example, parents may wish to have a child of a specific sex, generally male, and be willing to terminate the pregnancy to have the preferred child. To put it bluntly, they do want a child, but do not want that particular one. Sex selection is gender discrimination. To favor one gender over the other is to believe that it has greater value and worth, economically, culturally and socially. The question is whether a pregnant woman should be allowed to take on the role of security police and erect a checkpoint at which she can genetically audition her future child before allowing it to be born.1 A decision to abort made solely on the basis that the fetus is unwanted or undesirable because of its sex ironically undermines the very ethical reasons for granting women the right to terminate a pregnancy in the first place.
Parental autonomy favors parents’ right to almost unlimited reproductive choices. For example, parents decide as when and where to have a child, the timing of children and family size. They may also claim a right to have a “balanced” family, i.e. a boy and a girl, and be willing to terminate a pregnancy for no other reason than achieving this goal. This may imply that having an “unbalanced” family is pathological and needs medical attention. To abort a fetus because it is of the “wrong” sex or does not make up for a “balanced” family encourages intolerance, hostility and discrimination. It is to view sex as a disease that justifies medical intervention. Rejecting equality by promoting sex selection abortions would make it easier for society to pursue a eugenics project and the making of “designer’s babies.” This would be incompatible with the precepts of a just and inclusive society and morally damaging to women and the children they bear.
1. Shuster E. Microarray genetic screening: a prenatal roadblock for life? The Lancet, 2007:269:526-29.
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