“Is it a boy or a girl?”
How often have we asked that question after the arrival of a newborn or after receiving the result of a sonogram? What does it reveal about us as humans that many of us place such undue emphasis on sexual identity? Does the simple question reveal a deeper understanding of the importance and uniqueness of being created male and female? For millennia parents have anxiously awaited the answer. But what happens when we can decide the answer before the child ever enters the mother’s womb?
Although rarely discussed, reproductive technologies have made it possible for parents to have complete control over the sex of their child. The primary means include: prenatal diagnosis (either through a sonogram or amniocentesis) followed by abortion of fetuses having the unwanted sex; preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) followed by selective implantation based on sex; and (a less certain technique) pre-fertilization separation of sperm into X- and Y-bearing ones followed by selective transfer. The first two methods select post-conception, while the last seeks to determine sex before human life begins.
A recent Wall Street Journal article noted that about one out of five couples who come to HRC Fertility, a network of fertility clinics in Southern California, doesn’t need help getting pregnant. “They usually have one, two or three children of one gender” and want their next child to be of the other sex, said Daniel Potter, medical director of HRC Fertility.
In a country that prizes both consumerism and reproductive “choice” it’s not surprising the two have melded together, providing would-be parents with the means to control the sex of their offspring.
Indeed, we value the concept of freedom of choice more than we do equality. While countries such as Australia, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, India, Japan and Switzerland all ban such procedures for nonmedical use, in America it's gaining greater acceptance.
The WSJ article points out a 2008 study in the journal Fertility and Sterility that found in an online survey that among U.S. clinics that offered PGD, 42 percent would do it for nonmedical sex selection. It was performed in 9 percent of PGD cycles reported in 2005, according to the survey.
The fact that many parents may have a preference for either a boy or a girl is not surprising. It would be rather curious if so fundamental a characteristic were not considered a matter of some importance. But it is precisely because the sex of a human is so intrinsic to one’s being that it should not be left to the whim of parental desire. The more we rely on reproductive technologies the more we strip the sense of mystery that surrounds the creation of new life. Instead of accepting children as being created in the image of God we attempt to make them in the image of ourselves.
Even our language exposes our attitude of control over the process. As bioethicist Leon Kass wrote in Toward a More Natural Science:
The premodern Christian English-speaking world, impressed with the world as a given by a Creator, used the term “pro-creation.” We, impressed with the machine and the gross national product (our own work of creation), employ a metaphor of the factory, “re-production.”
While sex control may cause social problems such as lopsided sex ratios or contribute to gender stereotyping and discrimination, the most troubling aspect may be in what it says about our expression of love toward children. In his book Faith, Hope, Love, the Thomist philosopher Josef Pieper explores the various meanings and connections between the concepts we use to describe “love.” What, he asks, is the “recurrent identity underlying the countless forms of love?”
My tentative answer to this question runs as follows: In every conceivable case love signifies much the same as approval. This is first of all to be taken in the literal sense of the word’s root: loving someone or something means finding him or its probes, the Latin word for “good.” It is a way of turning to him or it and saying, “It’s good that you exist; it’s good that you are in the world!”
Parents who choose the sex of their child, however, are expressing something else, a contingent form of love: “It’s good that you exist if you are a boy” or “It’s good that you exist if you are a girl.” The very process of gender selection makes the parents love conditional on the child’s sex. All children that don't meet the criteria are simply not chosen; they are discarded, never to exist. In essence, they are being told that since they cannot be created in the way the parents desire, it's better that they not exist.
A child should be accepted as a gift from God, now as a product we choose to customize. Even if technology provides the means we should not usurp God’s role. The question "Is it a boy or a girl?" is one that should only be decided by our Creator.