Can Liberals Support a Ban on Sex Selection?
Australia essentially bans sex selection, except to prevent babies being born with serious sex-linked disorders. The National Health and Medical Research Councils also prohibits it in its guidelines.
A couple in the state of Victoria is currently appealing to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal to allow them to access IVF and to deliberately have a girl. The couple have had three boys naturally and lost a daughter soon after birth. They recently had IVF which resulted in a twin pregnancy. The twins were boys. They aborted the pregnancy.
I argued over 10 years ago there are no good reasons to oppose sex selection in countries like Australia.
According to the father of liberalism, John Stuart Mill, the sole ground for interference in liberty is to prevent harm to others. As Gab Kovacs pointed out in that article and I pointed out 10 years ago, nobody is harmed by this couple’s decision to have a girl. The ban on sex selection is a blatant abuse of state authority.
It is instructive to look at the objections that people did raise to this case. First, let’s start with the “expert” from the opposing side, Gene Ethics director Bob Phelps.
I’m sorry they lost their daughter but, in the interests of society as a whole, they should seek some counselling for their grief and look for another way of getting a daughter into their family.
Mr Phelps said he was concerned that making an exception in this case could open the floodgates and raised concerns about skewing the male-female balance of the population.
There is no evidence that the sex ratio would be changed in a country like Australia. People’s preferences are divided equally and most requests are for “family balancing” as in this case, where couples seek to have a child of the opposite sex to the ones which they have already. If one were seriously concerned about the country’s sex ratio, one should adopt the least liberty restricting option, not the most liberty restricting option. The least liberty restricting option would be to allow free selection and simply monitor the sex ratio. If it did show signs of worrying disturbance, this could easily be corrected – by then allowing only sex selection for the minority sex. That is, if too many boys were produced, sex selection could be restricted to choosing girls for a time. Or a slightly more liberty restricting option would be to only allow sex selection for second and subsequent children and only for the sex opposite to the existing children.
But this is not the reason why most people are concerned with sex selection. One has only to glance through the correspondence on this issue to see what the real concern is. Evidently, people employ what Leon Kass described as the “wisdom of repugnance” or the “wisdom of the gut”. I have again discussed this kind of “ethical reflection” and its invalidity. In the first 30 or so responses, I read, “Appalling”, “Sick”, “Disgusting”, “Horrifying”. Virtually every response expressed strong condemnation (except for a rather thoughtful response from an IVF mother.) Here is one typical response:
These people are disgusting. Grieving for there dead daughter, but happy to murder (oh, I mean ‘terminate’) two boys? IVF sex selection should be for medical reasons only, such as gender-specific genetic disease. Not for people who want to replace a lost child. Frankly I don’t think people this emotionally unstable should be having any more children. They need counseling, not help to medically manufacture a replacement baby.
In the background of virtually the opposition was that this couple should not kill two healthy male foetuses for this reason. In a somewhat interesting twist on this argument, one journalist used this as an argument in favour of sex selection:
No, it’s the babies lost that must be our real concern here and for that reason alone the law must change so that no more will we see parents disposing of one child to make way for another.
Can the “babies lost” be a reason for liberals to oppose sex selection, or support it?
At the extreme end of this argument is the full blooded pro-life position, held by the Catholic Church, that the fetus and embryo are persons with a full right to life. Obviously, if that view were correct, sex selection would be wrong. But so would the 100 000 social terminations which occur in Australia every year, IVF which involves disposing of spare embryos, laws like those in Victoria which require destruction of excess IVF embryos, the use of the IUD and even the use of the oral contraceptive which can result in failure of embryo implantation. Such a view is wildly inconsistent with Australian life, society and values. It is not the basis for any kind of legislation.
Rather, at the basis of most of these folk objections is the view expressed that IVF and embryo selection can be used for serious diseases but not for mild disorders or for selecting the sex of one’s offspring. Over 10 years ago, Lach De Crespigny and I surveyed the attitudes of Australian practitioners working in clinical genetics and obstetrical ultrasound on whether termination of pregnancy (TOP) should be available for conditions ranging from mild to severe fetal abnormality and for non-medical reasons. We compared these for terminations at 13 weeks and 24 weeks. One striking finding was that these professionals who were routinely involved in termination of pregnancy were much more prepared to facilitate a termination, even at 13 weeks, for a normal pregnancy than for one involving a cleft palate.
This displays the dominant tendency of both professionals and the public to evaluate the reasons for a person’s choice to have a termination or to destroy an embryo. As I argued there, such a view cannot be sustained by liberals. Either the fetus or embryo has a right to life, in which case all killing is wrong, for whatever reason, or the fetus/embryo does not have the moral status of a person, in which case killing it for any reason is permissible, just as killing other living things with no moral status is permissible.
In fact, the dominant community position that killing for disability is permissible but not for reasons of sex selection is an example of objectionable eugenics – devaluing the lives of some, that is, those with a sex linked or other disorder.
The public and professionals are confused about the value of life and moral status. Either the embryo has a moral status or it does not. At present, it is permissible to destroy an embryo if
- It has haemophilia, or
- It is normal but excess to requirements for IVF
But it is not permissible to destroy an embryo because its sex is the same as 3 preceding children. This represents a wholly unsupportable account of the status of human life.
People with haemophilia, a sex linked disorder, have lives which are very worthwhile and worth living. The reason why it is permissible to destroy embryos with haemophilia is because embryos are not the kinds of beings which are harmed by being destroyed.
Liberals will at some point have to bite the bullet and embrace the implications of the values that they adhere to.
It is time to revise our irrational, harmful and illiberal opposition to sex selection.