WASHINGTON -- A blood test recently proven to be capable of accurately determining the sex of an unborn child as early as seven weeks' gestation could result in an increase in gender-selective abortions in the United States.
Observers have expressed concern in the wake of a study published online in August in the Journal of the American Medical Association that documented the precision of a test that can be performed much earlier than an ultrasound. It is much less invasive than amniocentesis or chorionic villus sampling. It also is much more reliable than tests that require a urine sample. In addition, it is convenient and is performed privately in a doctor's office.
The test can be utilized for such harmless purposes as determining blood type or relieving anxious curiosity, but the ease by which it is conducted can lead to ethical corruption, said bioethicist Arthur Caplan of the University of Pennsylvania.
Though many Americans believe sex-selection abortion exists only in foreign countries, there are indications the practice is gaining a hold among some groups in the United States. Chinese and Indian cultures place emphatic pressure on women to give birth to boys. While the United States does not have a coercive, one-child policy like China and its citizens are not normally concerned with producing a male heir, it appears some immigrants from such Asian countries as India and China have adopted the practice in the U.S.
A study published in the June issue of Prenatal Diagnosis discovered that in some Asian-American third pregnancies, more boys than girls are born in ratios that suggest prenatal sex selection.
In addition, although sex-selection abortion by Americans is a rare occurrence, some upper-middle-class women have expressed desires to give birth to children of a certain gender by means of in vitro fertilization. They have given multiple reasons as justification, from balancing the family to a love for everything pink and girly, wrote Sunita Puri, a resident physician at San Francisco General Hospital, in an article for the online magazine Slate.
After conducting research in China, journalist Mara Hvistendahl concluded there are similarities between what happens in China and the United States concerning sex selection.
"I actually think Americans selecting for girls is really not that different from what's happening in Asia," Hvistendahl said in an interview on National Public Radio's "Morning Edition" about her book "Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men." "In both cases, parents are going in with preconceived notions about how the child's going to turn out, and it's really, in both places, this shift toward consumer eugenics and toward parents making small decisions over how their child's going to turn out. And, you add those decisions up and they have a big impact on society."
Steve Mosher, the Population Research Institute's executive director, believes sex-selection abortion is the "ultimate form of discrimination on the basis of sex."
David Prentice, senior fellow for life sciences at the Family Research Council, agrees.
"This is not a matter of being able to vote or ride in a particular seat on a bus," Prentice told Baptist Press. "This is a matter of life and death."
It is estimated more than 160 million female babies worldwide since the 1970s are missing because of sex-selection abortion. A shortage of women and the societal problems that could ensue are not the only issues that the world could face with sex-selection abortion. Puri raised this question in Slate: If the parents place every hope and dream in a child merely based on his or her gender, what happens if the child falls short of these standards?
"We need to consider very much our concept of manufacturing children versus being blessed with children," Prentice said.
The idea of designer babies may have seemed in the past like a distant possibility, but the new blood test foreshadows gender preference becoming a widespread reality. Having the options of choosing eye color, skin tone and even intelligence levels are just a few of the promises scientists are making for the future creation of human life.
Some doctors say it is their duty to educate all patients about these findings, as well as provide the new blood test. Some ethicists, though, disagree.
"We are looking for every technology that will give us control over nature," C. Ben Mitchell, professor of moral philosophy at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., told BP. "In this case, it is even a lethal control. We ain't seen nothing yet as these technologies continue to be refined."
Whether sex-selection abortion will quickly become a phenomenon in the United States is a matter of opinion. With advances in technology, moral and ethical controversies will continue to surface.
Wesley Smith, senior fellow at the Discovery Institute's Center on Human Exceptionalism and a strong opponent of sex-selection abortion, believes it is each citizen's responsibility to make ethically sound choices.
"Society will rise or fall ethically by how we live our individual lives," Smith said. "In the end, that takes people doing the right thing regardless of whether doing wrong is legal."