Sex selection: A dangerous road to toddle down

Kathleen Parker
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Posted: Jan 21, 2004 12:00 AM

When so much can be known, not knowing is increasingly appealing.

The latest advance in "knowing," creepily called "preimplantation genetic diagnosis," allows prospective parents not only to know, but to select the sex of their barely conceived offspring.

Always wanted a bouncing baby boy but keep having girls? No problem. PGD has taken the guesswork out of baby-making and the randomness of birth as we have always known it.

A Newsweek article about the new science of sex selection features happy couples who got the girl or boy they wanted, as well as critics of the latest "choice." Not everyone is swooning over this new advance given the myriad ethical issues that arise any time humans ratchet up their god-like powers.

Just because we can, should we? And who should decide? Is this yet another place government doesn't belong? If not a matter for government oversight, then who should decide what we do with human life in all its permutations - pre-born, test-tubed, sperm-selected and ova-donated.

Priests, rabbis and imams? A jury of one's peers? Bioethicists?

Underscoring the debates sure to continue is a depressing inevitability to all of it. The sense is that though distasteful on many levels, selecting a baby's sex - and perhaps someday details such as eye color, height, intelligence - is an unstoppable trend. Variously celebrated or abhorred, what used to be the stuff of science fiction is the nonfiction story of our here and now.

Family planning no longer means counting moon phases. Increasingly, it's a matter of mapping gender and genes. Already some specialty sperm and egg banks offer "Ivy League" donors; hundreds of couples have signed up for sex-selection trials.

What's the big deal about identifying sex, proponents ask? If a family has three boys and wants a girl, why shouldn't they have the option to choose? Questions far outnumber answers thus far, which may be an answer in itself.

Some pragmatists worry that sex selection could become a new form of sex discrimination. Or that we might upset the balance of nature by fooling with the ratio of boys to girls, as occurred in China when families limited to one child aborted females.

Sex selection also adds a prickly new dimension to the abortion issue. If you order a girl and mistakenly get a boy, do you abort the "wrong sex"? Of course, you certainly may, and some have. Wrong sex, wrong time, wrong mood. Getting born these days is a tricky proposition.

If you're getting the heebie-jeebies about now, I'd say that's a good sign. Here's at least one question I haven't heard asked: When did it become accepted wisdom that people should always get exactly what they want? Since when are perfect outcomes the standard by which we measure quality of life?

I'm not so much worried about sexism as I am about our humanity. In the words of Leon Kass, chair of the President's Council on Bioethics, "We all have a stake in keeping human reproduction human."

Such sentiment lends comfort to the warm-blooded among us as we fast-forward to the futuristic world of "Gattaca," the movie in which one's DNA determines one's role in life. Things do not go well for those dissatisfied with their genetic assignment. No marching on Washington, in other words.

The other wrinkle that bears consideration is the disappointment factor. When we're so invested in specific outcomes, don't we increase the likelihood of being let down?

In every case, I suspect, a degree of narcissism creeps into the romantic equation that results in our little darlings. Father wants a son just like Dad; Mother wants a daughter just like Mom. Me? I just want someone who'll visit me in the nursing home.

Whatever we might hope for in advance of knowing, most of us are satisfied with 10 fingers and 10 toes. In fact, delight describes the usual reaction when people learn the sex of their babies, whether before or after birth.

A boy! Why, I always wanted one of those.

But when our procreative urge morphs into a quantifiable desire, the underlying motivation of which may not be clear, we risk dire disappointment and possibly our capacity for the unconditional love parenting requires.

Besides which, life without surprises - and the kind of spontaneity that sometimes results in an unplanned pregnancy - would be intolerably boring.