As the Australian government opens a consultation on sex selection for non-medical purposes, Content Manager Liz Harley explores the arguments for and against, and delves into her own personal views. 

Two articles in The Conversation caught my eye this week, both tackling a potentially thorny issue in human genetics: should we allow parents to select the sex of their children during IVF? 

To give this debate some context, the Australian government (along with 31 others around the world including the UK) currently allows parents to select the sex of their child during IVF treatment for medical reasons only. These reasons include preventing the transmission of a gender specific or sex-linked genetic conditions, such as fragile X syndrome or haemophilia, where sons have a 50% chance of inheriting the condition from a carrier mother. But Australia has leapt into the centre of public debate because of their draft guidelines on sex selection, currently up for public consultation, which raise the possibility of allowing sex selection during IVF for social reasons.

So should parents be allowed to choose the sex of their child even when there is no compelling medical reason for them to do so? The consultation explores a number of issues around sex selection, including family balancing, that it could be ethically permissible to allow parents with many children of one sex to select for a child of the opposite sex, and reproductive autonomy, that the parents’ right to have a child extends to selecting the sex and should therefore be respected. 

From a genetics perspective, and with a range of dystopian sci-fi adding its ten cents to the argument, there are concerns about extending that selection from sex to other characteristics like eye colour, height, intelligence, and disease susceptibility. The most conservative opponents of human genetic technology argue that allowing any social changes creates a “slippery slope” into eugenics territory. 

Writing in favour of allowing the consultation is Ian Olver, Director of the Sansom Institute for Health Research and Chair of Translational Cancer Research at University of South Australia. Olver is quick to address eugenics concerns by arguing that sex selection is a discrete category that can be isolated from other traits.  

“Aside from such choices not yet being medically possible, the slippery slope argument may falter because there’s no natural progression between approving non-medical sex selection and approving being able to select other characteristics.”

Olver points out that this discussion is not being held solely to amuse scientists and ethicists. This is an issue that many parents face right now, and many are even taking matters into their own hands. “Some Australians are pursuing sex selection in overseas clinics. And because not all international clinics have the same standard of care that exists in Australia, this could be risky for both the woman and her child,” explains Olver. That parents are willing to take that risk creates a clear and present need for the public to be involved in the discussion.

On the other side of the argument is Tereza Hendl, research assistant at the Faculty of Health Sciences at University of Sydney, who argues that allowing social sex selection is “an exercise in sexism.” 

Hendl’s argument steps away from the autonomy and rights of the parents, and explores how such choices may affect the resulting children. By selecting the sex of their child, Hendl argues, parents are making specific presumptions about the characteristics of their child. These assumptions are very likely to be based on pre-existing gender roles and stereotypes. “To the extent that family balancing is based on the selection of children to fulfil preconceived binary gender roles, it reinforces sexism,” she argues.

“The risk of harm in sex selection stems from the fact that parents don’t desire any child, they want a child of a particular sex. And the child is presumed to develop characteristics within the limits of binary gender roles.”

Ironically, I find myself agreeing with both perspectives. On the one hand I firmly believe in public discussion and debate and if, as Olver points out, parents want sex selection enough to risk going overseas for treatment then clearly this is a discussion that needs to be had. I am deeply wary of the motivations for choosing a particular gender, as it seems to me that many parents make that choice because they have pre-existing expectations of girls and boys. Without going too deeply into my personal politics, I do not think it is fair to any child to force those expectations upon them before they are even born, whether they are male or female.

What do you think? Give the articles a read and let us know!