Philippa Taylor

Ethicists back sex selection for social reasons

Philippa Taylor was Head of Public Policy at CMF until September 2019 and now works with CARE. She has an MA in Bioethics from St Mary’s University College and a background in policy work on bioethics and family issues.
The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of CMF.


Today sees the publication of another deliberately controversial and radical proposal, designed to provoke debate but also to soften public opinion towards removing yet another barrier to reproduction without limits or interference.

‘Leading’ medical ethicists, we are told, are proposing that all legal barriers to sex selection of children should be removed.

Sex selection for medical reasons is currently permitted in the UK. However in a new journal publication, Professor of Bioethics at Lancaster University, Stephen Wilkinson, argues that there is no justification to support the UK’s legal ban on sex selection for ‘social’ reasons and that it would be ethical to offer it based solely on parents’ preference to have a child of a particular sex.

This is another in a line of recent radical proposals by leading ethicists, which have included proposing infanticide and organ transplant euthanasia.

This one merits serious consideration for two reasons. First, to counter the publicity inevitably – and deliberately – generated by such extreme views. Second, this radical proposal is, in its outcome, the logical consequence of granting parental freedom to choose to use IVF and embryo testing for specific (medical) reasons. If parental choice is allowed to trump the rights of the embryo and resulting children for some reasons, then on what logical basis can parental choice be denied for other reasons?

The authors argue exactly this. They say that where couples are already undergoing IVF and embryo testing for medical reasons, and also have a preference for the sex of a future child, then parental requests for transfer of an embryo of a specific sex should be permitted.

As IVF and other techniques can now fulfil these often strongly-felt preferences, it’s important to ask why wishing for a girl or a boy baby might be so wrong that parents must be stopped from attempting to achieve it in the UK.

CMF have long been opposed to sex selection for both medical and social reasons, seeing no logic in distinguishing between the two. We warned in the past that permitting sex selection for medical reasons will make us: ‘future hostages to the shifting sands of consensus’ with regard to sex selection for social reasons.  Which is indeed where we are today.

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 (as amended in 2008) allows embryonic sex selection to take place in the UK only if there is a risk that any resulting child will have or develop a gender-related serious medical condition or disability. Guidance from the BMA states that it is normally unethical to terminate a pregnancy on the basis of fetal sex alone, except in cases of severe sex-linked disorders.[i]  Also the European Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine, Article 14, prevents the use of medically assisted sex selection, except for ‘serious hereditary sex-related disease’.

Nevertheless, Prof Wilkinson says:

We examined the ethics of gender preference and sex selection techniques in the British context and found no reason to expect harm to future children or wider society if these techniques were made available for ‘social’ reasons within our regulated fertility treatment sector.

Perhaps I can help him out.

1.Sex selection condones and encourages conditional parental love, based upon the child’s gender. Unconditional love depends upon accepting the child whatever their characteristics.

2.It engenders a view that children are possessions, or products made to order and design, rather than gifts to treasure. The message is clearly: ‘order what you want’ rather than ‘accept what you are given’.

3. For the child who knows he/she had had his/her gender chosen (at significant effort and often expense), there will be a burden of parental expectations and pressures – that of being the ‘right’ boy or girl rather than the accepted child.

4.There will be a psychological impact on any other children in the family who will know that their parents had gone to considerable trouble to choose the sex of their brother/sister and therefore appeared to favour him or her based on sex.

5.If the process fails, what will be the attitude to the child born if he/she is the ‘wrong’ sex?  Will abortion be considered?  (something not legally permitted for gender selection). What welcome (if any) will be given to a child who is the ‘wrong’ sex?

6. ‘Family balancing’, given as a reason for allowing social sex selection, is merely a clever euphemism for discrimination on the grounds of parental preference. Why should a family that consists only of boys or girls be regarded as unbalanced? Is this in itself discriminatory? Is there any evidence to show that children grow up better in ‘balanced’ families?

7. Allowing sex selection will make it illogical and thus impossible to oppose ‘choice’ of any other genetic characteristics, such as appearance, height, intelligence, etc. It is thereby a step toward designer babies.

8. Permitting sex selection for social reasons here would lend respectability to the procedure worldwide. We would no longer be in a position to state that it was wrong elsewhere. Our opposition to practices in China and India that favour male children would be hypocritical if we legitimised social sex selection here.

9. The UK is a multi-cultural, ethnically diverse, society and some of our citizens live with cultural pressures that prefer children of a specific sex.  Sex selection is not a ground for abortion in Britain, however we are not immune amongst some groups to illegal sex selection for social reasons, as an undercover investigation into abortion clinics last year revealed.

10. While the practice is widespread in some Asian countries it is generally accepted elsewhere that it is discriminatory towards females, because it is primarily female fetuses that are aborted.  Even the usually pro-abortion UNFPA issued a press statement declaring that: ‘Joint international and national actions to end prenatal sex selection and discrimination against women should remain a priority for all.’ Their statement makes clear that sex selection reinforces discriminatory attitudes towards women and girls.

11. The two most ‘reliable’ methods of sex selection are abortion and embryo selection. The latter method selects only embryos of the desired sex for implantation from a number of embryos in the laboratory, while embryos of the ‘wrong sex’ are discarded. Those opposed to abortion will object to sex selective abortions, those who believe the human embryo has moral status will object to embryo selection methods.

12. It is sometimes argued that if selection is not permitted in the UK then it will lead to reproductive tourism, whereby couples seek ‘treatment’ in countries with fewer or no restrictions.  However even if this argument holds, it does not justify permitting selection here because it is inherently morally wrong and it is. Moreover, restrictions here will continue to send a message and discourage most people from travelling further afield to access it.

13. The reverse is also possible, that a relaxation in the laws here will attract people to the UK for sex selection from countries where restrictions are tighter, namely those who will pay for it (the wealthy) or those who attempt to access it on the NHS.

14. Rather than allowing sex selection, the UK should be setting an example on the international stage that reaffirms the value of each individual and opposes discrimination in any form, be it on the basis of sex, race or disability.

Bayliss warns that because we live in a time of: ‘…heedless liberalism, reproductive rights understood narrowly in terms of freedom from interference, rampant consumerism, global bio-exploitation, technophilia and hubris undaunted by failure – no genetic or reproductive technology seems to be too dangerous or too transgressive.

It thus becomes ever harder to say that we need to limit the control we should exert on our future children. However we have to speak out for children who are gifts given to us to love and care for, not commodities that we choose and own. And we have to warn of the danger that in extending the scope of the choices parents make, we are steadily altering the nature of parenthood, harming the child and changing the structure of our society.

Posted by Philippa Taylor
CMF Head of Public Policy



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