June 29, 2007

Fixing Sex Selection

Everything is forbiddenThis week on CNE I talk about early gender testing, a technique that elegantly undermines the anti-sex selection rules of Europe. By measuring fetal DNA it claims to be able to determine the sex of the child with high accuracy, only requiring a blood sample and a mail-order genetic test. In societies where people are allowed to test their bodies and have access to abortion this means that it is impossible to prevent sex selection if it is really desired. The pressure in the west seems to be relatively weak, but some couples no doubt want it.

There are three main reasons people claim to be against gender selection:

  1. Respect for “the given” selecting persons
  2. Sexism
  3. Tilted gender ratio

Often these are mere rationalisations for a fundamental distaste to intervene in reproduction. It would be more honest to admit it, but there is not much chance of advancing the debate if both sides are just feeling. On the other hand, it might make it more clear that in a pluralistic society even fundamental issues of human life may have to be individualised. But that is something bioconservatives would never agree with: they want the normative high ground and to be able to ban practices.

Respecting the given

The respecting the given argument is more of an argument about attitude than an argument against a particular outcome. Its typical form is that we should have an "openness to the unbidden" and appreciate life as gift.

This approach has been roundly criticised both academically and non-academically.

The easy part to criticise is the nature of givenness, as some proponents seem to think it is how the given children come about that matters. But imagine that J.A. Millot was right in L’art de procreer les sexes `a volonte (1820) and that the child’s gender is determined by what side the woman lies on when the male ejaculates. Would it make sense to argue that this unpredictability is so important that parents must not pay any attention to their sexual position? Or maybe that they have to flip a coin? "Tails, honey. Lean on your left".

The given sounds convincing as long as its origins are held suitably hazy; then our intuitions about divine interventions, destiny or providence can play freely. When the sources of the given are mere randomness (or lying on one’s side) the given does not seem to hold much impressive power. The attitude towards the given is the important one, because it deals with something real: how people view each other.

The main problem as I see it with appreciating the unbidden is that it clearly isn’t applicable to every situation, but we don’t have any guidelines for when it is important. Should we meekly accept illnesses or crime because they are given by external, unpredictable factors? Nobody argues for that. Should we accept that certain people have a hard time learning as a sign that they should not try hard in school or be given help to overcome their natural problem? Again practically everyone thinks we should overcome the given. It seems that in nearly any area where we can effectively change things we gladly throw out the given in favor of the selected. Critics like Sandel might be right in that it does not make us happier, but it doesn’t seem that respecting the given has much strength as a normative argument or basis for laws.

Holding bad attitudes doesn't seem to be such a threat that laws have top be instituted against technologies that might (and we have so far little evidence for it) promote them. If it is OK to write books reducing respect for other people and urging them to treat each other as disposable tools, then it seems unreasonable to argue that a technology that just might promote the same result should be legally banned. We as a society (or the people holding the view that there is a problem here) might content ourselves to regard sex selection practices as something that is immoral or suspect, but yet should be legally allowed.

Many think that the problem here is that we are selecting a person. But this runs into Parfit's non-identity problem: whatever we do, whether selection happens or not, a different person will result. Brain development is likely a chaotic process with sensitive dependence on initiail conditions. At the most we are selecting subsets of the space of possible people, but these subsets are enormous.

I think again the argument becomes a psychological one: the selection is made for the benefit of the parents rather than the kid. One can try to make this an ethical issue and argue that threatens human dignity since the kid becomes a means to an end for the parents. But unless the parents are actually thinking they want a male heir or a daughter to tend them in old age this end is pretty non-instrumental. They want a kid, and that is the primary goal (otherwise they would not bother with sex selection, and would go straight for abortion). They also prefer a particular kind of kid, but this desire is contingent on the first desire. Hence the kid is not a means to an end. Maybe its sex is a means, but to my knowledge there is no "sexual dignity" that proclaims that one's sex or gender should never be a means but only an end in itself.

The overbearing parents argument is used against all forms of prenatal enhancement, but again the problem seems to be more that bad parenting is allowed than the technologies used. If parents imposing their will on kids is such a great problem, why try to handle it merely by banning a particular expression? Overbearing parents make the lives of their kids difficult in a variety of ways, from "Baby Einstein" toys over early sports training and piano lessions to giving them names like Caesar and telling them that they are expected to grow up into great leaders. Why not ban these practices, or require that a psychologist monitors every childhood? Clearly more children would be helped in this case than in the case of just banning gender selection, so it would be the rational first choice. But instead we have very strong rules allowing parents to bring up their kids in any strange way, as long as there is no physical harm or sexual activity.


Sexism is a more obvious issue in sex selection. Sexism is defined variously as assuming one sex being superior to the other, a hatred or dislike of one sex or having a limited and/or false notion of one or more genders.

Clearly ideas about family balancing shows that the value of genders may have a strong variable component: if a family has two boys, the value of a girl increases. But this kind of variable value is hardly what makes sexism undesirable nor is it sexist: instead it represents a valid recognition of how different traits are differently desirable in different situations. Discrimination is bad when it discriminates depending on irrelevant attributes. One might argue that the sex of the next child is irrelevant and a family can be just as happy with three boys, but this must be left up to the family to determine. It cannot be determined by an outside rule that sex is always irrelevant to families.

Sex selection based on the assumption of males (or females) being better, worse or being instrumentally important for some family project is clearly based in a sexist view. But again the problem lies in the sexism, not the ability to implement a sexist policy. As statistics of gender inbalances shows there is differential mortality for genders that differ between cultures: it is frighteningly easy even without gender selection to bias sex ratios by behaving differently towards desired or undesired offspring - and the amount of human pain this kind of "post-birth abortion" causes is obviously far greater than the amount of pain caused by a prenatal abortion.

Again, the rational thing to do is to work against sexism rather than a technology. As the widespread desire for family balancing shows a sexist culture can become relatively non-sexist in just a few generations. Sex selection is also unlikely to entrench traditional sexism, because if it is widespread the imbalances will force a re-evaluation of gender roles.

Gender Ratios

The risk of tilting gender ratios is a practical one. It doesn’t seem to be very relevant in the west, but elsewhere it carries some weight. That also leads to an unfortunate racist undercurrent in the argument: we are doing right, they are short-sighted and immoral. But is a tilted gender ratio that bad?

In the past we have had societies with strongly tilted gender ratios, in particular frontier areas like 19th century Argentine and Singapore and the post-war male depleted Soviet Union. Were they so bad that we must avoid them at all costs? Having many uprooted young men made for a rather volatile society, and they were certainly not the nicest or most cultured places. But they were also destabilised by many other frontier factors, so it is unlikely we can blame the number of men on all of that. Given differences in male and female behavior it may however be likely that a strongly male-tilted society would be more violent.

Right now Armenia tops the ratio list with 115 males per 100 females. China has 112 males per 100 females. That is about 10% above the natural level. Hence the gender selection going on today only produces a relatively minor effect compared to the historical cases (where ratios in society could be 15:1). It seems unlikely that allowing selection would make people orders of magnitude stronger, so the problems caused by sex selection techniques are unlikely to be larger than the old frontier problems.

If the government wants to control the gender ratio, why not add soft controls like taxing the "excessive" gender? Of course, that implies a devaluation of a gender and is to some extent an official sexist policy. And government control over reproduction has practically never had any benign effects.

Overall, gender imbalances are a way of forcing traditional systems to reconsider traditional sex roles. Economically, if males are regarded as more valuable than females they will become more common until the females reach the same value. In theory it would fix gender disparities elegantly. In practice there is a ~15-20 year delay that could induce oscillations.

Overall, I'm not worried that sex selection will tear society apart. Societies have handled far more tricky situations before, usually creatively. I'm more worried about the tendency to think that bans of technology can limit already extant bad social behaviors. That suggests an overconfidence both in the power of laws and our ability to predict complex social consequences, and underconfidence in actually changing cultural mores. Humanists ought to be careful about that.

Posted by Anders3 at June 29, 2007 10:57 AM