Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Sex Selection: The First Genetic Enhancement Battleground

In India, a doctor and his assistant have been sentenced to two years in jail for performing abortions of female fetuses. The doctor, Anil Sabhani, used ultrasound to determine the sex of fetuses and routinely aborted female fetuses.

In India, where females are often marginalized and female children are treated as a liability, sex selection is a big issue. The clear cultural preference for men has skewed sex ratios in parts of India, sometimes dramatically. In Haryana, where Dr. Sabhani was arrested, there are 861 women for every 1,000 men.

No one disputes that sex discrimination is a problem, and that steps must to be taken to reverse the marginalization of Indian females. But is the solution to ban sex-specific abortions? If it is, as the Indian government believes, what does that mean for the future of reproductive freedom in India? Would the government ban embryo modification, as opposed to abortion, which was used to influence sex? What about height or eye color?

As we prepare for a world in which we will exert an increasing amount of control over the genetic composition of our offspring (although not as much as we are often led to believe), the debate over sex selection is a crucial one. If we stipulate that being born of a particular sex, either male or female, is not a disability, then banning sex-based selection sets a precedent that could potentially control other attempts by prospective parents to influence the traits of their offspring.

Clearly, India has a sex selection problem. And, equally clearly, sex-based abortion is different from sex-based embryo selection (prior to implantation) or sex-based embryo modification. But how India handles its current problem, and whether or not we accept their position, will go a long way toward influencing how the future debate over genetic modification is shaped.

Update: I just noticed this recent item - Britain is opening a new "designer baby" clinic. Right now the plan is to screen embryos solely for diseases. But that's right now.


Blogger Potentilla said...

I tend to share your doubts about banning sex-selection, on libertarian grounds. I don't see that if any particular couple wants a boy, why they shouldn't be allowed to choose one. However, I seem to recall that in some cases, males births are running at around 120% of female ones (too lazy to track the reference down right now). This gives the government another sort of problem, in that when the birth ratio translates to the same sort of skew in (say) 18-year-olds, there seems to me to be a definite likelihood of serious civil unrest. Or maybe a war.

It's extremely unlikely for me to be wondering whether government today should be restricting the freedoms of people on the argument of putative future societal benefit, but in this case I have to consider it.

Thu Apr 06, 10:08:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Tim Kanwar said...

You're quite right that the skewed sex ratio is a problem. The article makes that point, and it is generally well known that in parts of India, and elsewhere in Asia, the ratio of males to females is posing unique challenges for governments and societies that are increasingly unbalanced.

Which is why important that I clarify something: I don't support the rationale behind that sort of broad-based, fundamental sex-selection. Where sex ratios are so extremely skewed it is evidence of an underlying problem - a preference for males over females because of some perceived inferiority on the part of the female sex. This, I take it, is a problem that needs to be addressed by both governments and communities.

Now, whether or not the form of that address should take the form of government interference in the reproductive decisions of private citizens is another matter. I'm inclined to believe that there are other ways, both more effective and less intrusive, for governments to address the social stigmatization of females in a way that would preserve reproductive freedoms while addressing the problems of skewed sex ratios.

I don't know enough about the cultural and social landscape in India to suggest, off the top of my head, exactly how this might be accomplished. And I recognize that this weakens my position. Nevertheless, I think other options should be explored, and criminalization considered only as a possible last resort.

Sat Apr 08, 04:45:00 PM EDT  

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