Rethinking Sex Selection: A Feminist Critique

Alana Cattapan argues the harm done to women through sex selection is sufficient reason to continue the prohibition.


In a recent report on “Eugenics and the Ethics of Selective Reproduction,” published in July 2013, Stephen Wilkinson and Eve Garrard step into much-contested terrain, challenging orthodoxies of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). In their essay on sex selection—which caught the attention of media outlets throughout the United Kingdom (here, here & here) —the authors argue that there is no ethical justification for the UK prohibition on sex selection using PGD.

While Wilkinson and Garrard make a number of interesting points in developing their argument, in my view, they do not adequately address the relationship between sexism and sex selection. The implications of using PGD to select for male children in certain “ethnic subgroups” in the UK, as well as the reinforcement of gender binaries and stereotypes are sound ethical reasons to continue the ban on sex selection. And while Wilkinson and Garrard consider elements of both of these arguments they ultimately (and in my opinion, wrongly) dismiss them.

Sex selection was banned in the UK, as elsewhere, out of fear that there would be sex-selection in favour of boy children (as in China and India), resulting in overrepresentation of males in the population.  Wilkinson and Garrard argue that the UK is unlike societies where female children are less valued than male children and that while certain ethnocultural communities in the UK might choose male children using PGD, these groups are relatively small and any resulting population imbalance would be negligible. With little fear of an overall population imbalance, Wilkinson and Garrard insist that the ban on sex selection cannot be ethically justified.  They maintain that though a population imbalance within certain communities “may well be harmful to members of that group, that doesn’t seem a sufficient reason for constraining the reproductive liberties of all the rest of the population” (p. 30).

SexDifferencesThis argument, however, does not address the importance of women’s equality in   communities where sex-selection for male children is most likely to occur. In my view, the harm done to women in ethnocultural communities where female children are devalued through sex selection is sufficient reason to continue the prohibition on sex selection.

Wilkinson and Garrard argue that there is no reason to believe that it is harmful to the UK population to prohibit sex selection for non-medical reasons, if people of all genders are equally valued therein.  There is reason, however to believe that lifting the ban on sex selection may be harmful to members of certain ethnic subgroups where there may be an increase in the devaluation of female children, as well as a sex imbalance.  The restriction on one’s unfulfilled desire for a male or female child cannot be compared to the feeling of not being desired or the feeling of being a lesser person because of one’s sex. In a liberal society ostensibly dedicated to women’s rights and the protection of the rights of the marginalized, lifting the ban on sex selection cannot be justified.

Second, Wilkinson and Garrard argue that people can “prefer a child of one sex rather than the other without believing in the innate superiority of that sex”(p. 32).  On their view, sex selection for family balancing is permissible—people with one or more children of one sex should be allowed to choose to have a child of the other sex. Wilkinson and Garrard suggest that people will largely use sex selection for social reasons such as a preference for a child of a certain sex, or for “family balancing.”

A problem with this argument is the underlying assumption that male and female bodies have very different but equally valued social meanings, and that because the social meanings (of these very different bodies) are equally valued, sex selection is not sexist. This premise is faulty, however, as sexism is not only about the valuation of sex, but also about the ascription and reification of stereotypes. Allowing sex selection for social reasons like wanting a mother-daughter relationship or because one likes “some of the features associated with children of that sex,” is to support the continuation of these stereotypes.

The assumptions about masculinity and femininity tied to male and female bodies are fostered by “social” justifications for sex selection. Choosing a child’s sex in the hope of having that child fulfill gendered stereotypes is, if not sexist, certainly a practice that enables the continuation of a dichotomous and limiting sex-gender system. Furthermore, sex selection for social reasons promotes the notion that sex and gender are fixed; erasing the bodies and experiences of many people who are transgender, or intersex, or otherwise challenge rigid, conventional understandings of male and female.

The suggestion that a ban on sex selection cannot be ethically justified fails to recognize that sexism is about so much more than an overt valuation of sex. Sexism enables the ongoing devaluation of women, the perpetuation of a strict sex-gender system, and the reinforcement of long-held, problematic gendered stereotypes. The idea that we can permit people to choose the sex of their child is premised on an understanding of gendered equality wherein men and women have equal but different social roles and experiences, linked to their differently sexed bodies. For those tired of the pressures of challenging social convention, but determined to live the lives they want—gender roles be damned—permitting sex selection is deeply problematic.

Alana Cattapan is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Political Science at York University, Toronto, Canada.

One comment

  1. […] including the proposed legalization of sex-selection using pre-natal genetic diagnosis. Here is the blog post I wrote on the report for Impact Ethics, and here is the authors’ response […]

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