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Should parents be allowed to pick their children’s sex for non-medical reasons?

Once upon
a time, there were a queen and a king who had three children, all of them boys.
They both loved their children dearly and made sure they had everything they
might need to flourish. Nevertheless, the queen and her husband still felt that
their family was incomplete without a daughter. They had hoped to have one
after the birth of their first son, but both of the queen’s subsequent
pregnancies had produced boys. As she was now getting close to the age when she
could no longer reasonably hope to have more children, she and her husband were
worried that their wish for a daughter would never be fulfilled. Finally,
deciding not to leave what might be their last attempt to chance, they traveled through the
kingdom to solicit the assistance of an eminent enchanter. He was a wise man
renowned to have produced many miracles. Feeling sympathy for the royal couple,
the enchanter granted their request and prepared a special brew for them to
drink. Nine months later, the queen gave birth to a
beautiful daughter.


Few of
us, I assume, would find anything particularly objectionable about what the two
main protagonists of my tale choose to do. And obviously, the enchanter has a
real-life analogue in the modern world: fertility clinics, which allow
prospective parents to increase the likelihood of having a child of a
particular sex via procedures like IVF. More and more parents today are
expressing the desire to use sex selection for purposes similar to those of the
king and queen: this is generally referred to as “family balancing”, i.e.
creating a more even male-to-female ratio among their children. In Australia,
Health and Medical Research Council is currently reviewing whether to allow any
parents who use IVF to select their baby's gender
. Just like in the UK, the
practice is currently only allowed in Australia when there is a risk that parents
will pass on genetic diseases.


Australian Federal Health Minister Nicola Roxon declares herself “very
apprehensive” and “uncomfortable” about the prospect of a change to the current
laws towards greater permissiveness. But why such misgivings, if our intuition
in my fictional tale is that it is morally acceptable for the king and queen to
request the help of the enchanter in order to have a daughter while they still
can? IVF specialist Professor Gab Kovacs points out that the majority of couples
who ask for sex selection have family balancing as their motive, which suggests
that their case will typically be analogous to that of my fictional


possible objection to sex selection for non-medical reasons is that it is
likely to result in a significant gender imbalance at the level of the general
population, particularly in societies that display a cultural preference for
boys over girls. Whether or not such consequences would indeed obtain is an
empirical matter. There is evidence that such an outcome would not be a likely
one in countries like the UK (see e.g. Dahl 2005, pp.89-90; Wilkinson, 2008,
pp.381-82). Also, even it posed such a hazard, those who want to permit sex
selection for non-medical purposes have proposed various corrective measures
such as waiting lists for parents who desire a child of the most frequently
chosen sex (cf. Dahl, 2005, p.88).


possibility of creating a gender imbalance thus doesn’t justify an outright
prohibition on sex selection for non-medical reasons. However, there is another
objection to allowing the practice, namely that doing so would give free reign
to questionable, because biased (esp. misogynistic) attitudes towards children of a certain
gender. Some parents might for instance want to use sex selection because they
disliked girls and only wanted to have boys. Whether these parents held
mistaken beliefs about the supposed intellectual or moral inferiority of women,
or whether they just had a personal preference for boys over girls would not
necessarily be of much moral significance. Imagine someone who dislikes girls
(and presumably also women) and avoids contact with them as much as possible,
and would feel great displeasure at the prospect of raising a daughter, but
acknowledges that girls are not in any way objectively inferior to boys and
is prepared to grant them the same rights. Such a person would not strike me as morally superior to
someone whose sexist attitude rested on the false belief inculcated to him that
women are all deceitful, cynical and manipulative. On the contrary, the latter
would seem morally preferable to the former, as his attitude would at least
make sense in the light of his beliefs and could be corrected by correcting
these beliefs, whereas the former’s hostility to girls and women would be
entirely gratuitous.


second objection, however, only implies that sex selection for social purposes that
reflect biased attitudes
towards the members of a certain gender might be morally suspicious. It doesn't call into question the permissibility of selection for motives such as those of the queen and king
in my story, which do not involve any biased attitude. On those
grounds, it seems to me that sex selection for purposes of family balancing
should be permitted. Wilkinson (2005, p.384) is right to point out that family
balancing is not in itself less sexist than sex selection for other non-medical
purposes. A parent who hated the fact that he had only had daughters so far
could wish to “balance” his family by at least having one member of the
“better”, i.e. male sex. Still, it seems that parents who want to use sex
selection for family balancing are often, even typically, moved by
non-biased attitudes, and this speaks in favour of allowing the
practice. Sex selection that would lead to gender imbalance within the family
seems much more likely to involve biased attitudes towards one sex or
the other. Taking this consideration into account, as well as the current
disaffection of the general public towards sex selection for social purposes, the
reasonable option might be to allow sex selection for purposes of family
balancing while maintaining the ban on other non-medical uses of the practice.




Dahl, E.
2005. “Sex Selection: Laissez Faire or Family Balancing?” Health Care
13 (1):


S. & Kerin, L. “Roxon ‘uncomfortable’ over parents picking children’s sex”.
ABC News, 13 March 2010. URL =
Retrieved on the 24th of March 2010.


S. 2008. “Sexism, Sex Selection and ‘Family Balancing’”. Medical Law Review
16: 369-89.

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5 Comment on this post

  1. So, it’s ethically/morally ok to affect a child to serve the parents’ ends. That covers pretty much everything about the looks, sex, personality, of a child. The child is a thing for the parents’ pleasure. Actually, however awful that last sentence seems, it is probably the case that parents have children (when they plan to) for their own ends. So, that objection does not seem to hold up under current ethical norms or practices. It’s a question similar to that of having a child to benefit another child. Somehow the latter (if it is not killed for organs) probably suffers as much as any younger sibling, and turns out as well. So, what’s wrong with producing a blond, blue-eyed intelligent athlete, other than the numerous malpractice suits that will arise if one or another of the agreed-to characteristics doesn’t come to pass.

    My doubt, at least as to sex selection, is maintained even in the face of possible ways to avoid the imbalance that could result. I don’t believe it. If there are too many unmarried heterosexual males in the population, there is a serious danger of increase in violence in the society and, perhaps aggression against other countries as well.

    Good luck to us all; there is no doubt that it will happen despite all misgivings. We will have a glut of aryian males and females looking like last generation’s heartthrobs.

  2. Hi Alexander,

    I pretty much agree with you. I’m certanly not a libertariam, but it seems to me that the reasons people generally present against sex selection are just rationalizations of preexisting anti-selectionists tendencies. There really is no evidence of prejudice against women in most countries (the exceptions are clearly known). Indeed, at least in my country, Brazil, we could see a bias toward having girls. Everyone one knows the strengh and the legitimacy of the interest a lot of couples have in parenting children of both sexes. My parents had three sons, the second and the third ones were attempts to have a daughter. My wife’s parents had three daughters, the second and the third ones were attempts to have a son. I really don’t see why not grant the parents the right not to be sex biased.

  3. I would say that the comparison between current sex selection techniques (which, correct me if I’m wrong, all involve IVF) with “magically” conceiving a royal daughter has its flaws. IVF remains an invasive and expensive procedure, and creating multiple embryos with the intention of not using at least half of them is not morally neutral. If it were, ethical committees wouldn’t see the need to place such strong restrictions on the list of hereditary diseases that are considered grave enough for embryo selection. We also see that many couples using IVF are not very eager to donate their “spare” embryos to science or infertile couples.

    Until that “magical brew” had been scienced up, using terms like “balancing the family” glosses over the very real ethical problems contained in sex selection today.

    And on a wholly different point, we are indeed talking “sex” here – what if the hard-won baby XX decides she identifies as male? (It’s probably not significant enough to count in the considerations, but an amusing thought nonetheless.)

  4. Dennis: parents’ ends cannot all be put on the same moral plane. There seems to be a big moral difference between a couple’s wish to have children of both sexes, and the wish to have a “blond, blue-eyed athlete”. The former case is much more compatible with the quality of being a good, accepting parent than the latter, where the parents exhibit a much greater desire for control over their child’s traits, to the point of commodification (besides the fact that the desire for the kind of traits you mention is associated with a specific, obnoxious ideology). I believe that we should make value judgments about people’s ends and preferences, and that these judgments sometimes should influence regulation, e.g. in the case of selection for children’s traits. Given that parental preferences are not all on an equal moral footing, we don’t need to end up on the slippery slope that you are warning against. And I don’t think we should completely rule out people’s preferences as a legitimate influence in their decisions about having children: e.g. absent any foreseeable harmful consequences for others (i.e. the survival of the human species is not at risk, etc.) is a fertile couple doing something wrong if they decide not to have children because they want to devote their time to other commitments? Few of us would say so.

    Anna: sex selection can also be achieved using artificial insemination. The considerations you raise might give us a reason to choose that procedure over IVF when we can. I agree about the existence of the disanalogy you mention between my fictional example and the use of IVF. I used that example because I think it helps us assess objections to sex selection that criticize the parents’ aims and their attitude to their prospective children. I assume the point you’re making only applies in cases where a fertile couple uses IVF for purposes of sex selection, and not to infertile couples who would have to resort to IVF anyway. The question will then be whether a fertile couple’s interest in having children from both sexes does or not justify running the risk of creating embryos that will end up being destroyed.

  5. Dennis, I am delighted to hear that Brazilians have a preference for girls. Do you happen to have any data I could use. Or do you happen to be involved in reproductive medicine so we could do a survey on gender preferences together?

    Alexander: Splendid article!

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