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Issue at heart of gender selection

ONE day, possibly soon, parents will be able to choose between having a blue baby or a pink one – or, at least, those having IVF treatment will.

The idea may seem deplorable to many of us. But according to medical ethics professor Stephen Wilkinson, there is not sufficient justification for the current "blanket ban" on sex selection. Wilkinson, professor of bioethics at Lancaster University, and his team have reviewed arguments against such procedures and found them wanting.

In a report entitled Eugenics and the Ethics of Selective Reproduction, they argue that people should be allowed to make such a choice, whether for the purpose of so-called "family balancing" or simply because they "prefer" one sex or another.

This report is an attempt to shift the mood of a nation. The reason the ban exists, after all, is because the majority of the public don't like the idea. Many feel uncomfortable, as I do, with the idea of a culture in which parents might choose a child based on an expectation of what, through their gender, they will bring to the family, or to the parent. We don't like the idea of using a child to fulfil a craving or need. And this is what it appears that almost anyone choosing gender would be doing, even those merely looking to balance their family (get themselves a girl, for instance, to square off a glut of boys). There is a sense that this is not about the child, but about what the child can do for "us".

A Mori poll conducted 10 years ago for the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) found that 82% of respondents were against sex selection. Things may have moved on since then, but I suspect not that much. We in the UK tend not to embrace the idea of choosing gender. And that's not just because we look at societies like China and India, and imagine scenarios where one gender, the male, is favoured, but because we somehow feel this is not a power parents should have. Many of those surveyed by the HFEA thought that such power represented an "interference with divine will". Others considered that intervening in this way created "expectations". Wilkinson and his co-authors consider such arguments to be shaky and ill-founded, but, in my view, he fails to convince.

Most importantly, the report too quickly dismisses the argument that sex selection can't help but foster sexism. That's no big deal, it suggests. Sexism doesn't cause "serious harm" to individuals. In an interview last week, Wilkinson added that "the less sexist a society is, the more acceptable sex selection is". But, why, in a properly non-sexist society, would anyone even want sex selection? One would think that the less sexist a society is, the less bound by the idea that boys have one sort of role and set of proclivities and girls another, the less likely it is that anyone would want to choose between the genders.

Wilkinson's report describes such parents who choose between two genders doing so out of "preference", almost as though in the department store of baby retail, they simply had a liking for a different brand. But people who go out of their way to pursue getting a particular gender of child don't do it on the basis purely of some mild "preference". They do it because they have strong ideas about what each gender is, and what they bring to their lives. Bound up in the yearning and pining that is "preference" are all kinds of ideas, notions, and, indeed, stereotypes, about the different things that little girls and little boys are made of: sugar and spice or snails and puppy-dog tails.

When parents are interviewed about their desire to pursue getting a child of a particular gender, often they talk in stereotypes. In a Guardian article published three years ago, one mother spoke of her desire to have a girl, after having had three sons, of how she got "sick of walking down the high street past babyGap and seeing these delightful little girl outfits in the window and just getting this pang".

Many of us have at least some of these feelings of expectation. I have two boys. When I was pregnant with my second child, I occasionally had a hankering for a daughter. When another son arrived, like most parents, I was consumed by a passion and forgot about the girl thing almost entirely. But I do know that in the back of my mind had been the notion that if I had a daughter, she would talk to me more, and stay in touch more. After reading Cordelia Fine's book, Delusions Of Gender, however, I considered the possible ramifications of this. I was already bringing up two boys expecting them to be less communicative and perhaps less expressive. Fine's book contains plenty of evidence to suggest that men's and boys' empathic, communicative and people-reading skills may be hampered by expectations associated with stereotype.

Wilkinson's report acknowledges that often parents bring these expectations and "strongly want to have the kind of relationship they feel will only be possible with a child of one sex rather than another". But it notes that this is not because children of one sex are felt to be "more important" than another, but "simply in recognition of the fact that the sexes differ".

This is one hefty assumption. How the sexes differ and to what degree different proclivities and abilities are formed by nature or by nurture, is hotly disputed territory.

Of course, sex selection doesn't create these issues. Sexism comes first, and the desire to select is just one expression of that. Wilkinson is right to point out that, at least in the mainstream Caucasian community, we need not fear selection against girls. No imbalance is likely to result. Society in the UK has moved on vastly. If the Duchess of Cambridge were to give birth to a girl now, that daughter would have the same right, as third in line to the throne, as if she had been a boy. But that doesn't mean that sexism is irrelevant and doesn't cause any harm at all. Just because we are craving some sugar and spice, doesn't mean the answer has to be to choose a girl.

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