Embryo sex selection shouldn’t be illegal

Stephen Wilkinson and Eve Garrard respond to our last blog post calling for the continuing prohibition on embryo sex selection.


Alana Cattapan raises many important questions about our objections to the current legal prohibition on embryo sex selection within IVF (not sex-selective abortion), in the UK and other relevantly similar countries. We are grateful for this opportunity to comment.

Law and Morality: Our report, Eugenics and the Ethics of Selective reproduction, isn’t about the ethics of IVF sex selection per se, but about the defensibility of a legal prohibition on IVF sex selection.  We hold that, while some instances of sex selection are morally problematic, the case in favour of a ban is insufficiently strong.  Using the powers of the state to impose legal restrictions on people’s reproductive behaviour is a serious, and potentially dangerous, business and something to be done cautiously and only for compelling reasons.  Sometimes there are such reasons – we don’t support an entirely laissez-faire position – but, in the case of sex selection, a conclusive case hasn’t been made.  We don’t claim that sex selection is desirable, or even that most cases of it are morally acceptable.  Our conclusion is just that the case for legal prohibition is insufficiently strong to overturn the presumption of reproductive freedom.

Sexism and Stereotyping: Sex selection can be sexist but needn’t be.  Sexism takes two main forms: supremacism and stereotyping.  Both supremacism and stereotyping involve flawed beliefs about sex-difference.  For supremacism, the error is to view one sex as superior.  Stereotyping is more complex but involves a distorted or exaggerated (and hence false) view of sex-difference.

DougAndJudyCattapan says that allowing sex selection for reasons like wanting a mother-daughter relationship, or because one just likes the features associated with boys or girls, supports sexist stereotyping.  However, we don’t see why, for example, a woman with several sons who wants to enjoy a mother-daughter relationship is necessarily being sexist or stereotyping.  For, presumably, even in the complete absence of stereotyping, some differences between sons and daughters would remain and, when what’s at stake is a legal restriction on reproductive behaviour, we shouldn’t just assume that people’s motives are suspect.

Embryo sex selection policy (whichever way it goes) is unlikely to make a major difference to the prevalence of stereotyping.  Stereotyping is already ubiquitous and deeply entrenched and it got to be that way for reasons unrelated to sex selection.  Also sex selection within IVF would be a minority pursuit.  Given the cost and inconvenience involved, few people will want to make use of it solely for sex selection, and that fact will limit its influence.

Similar considerations cast doubt on Cattapan’s argument that we should ban sex selection because, especially within some ethnic minority groups, it leads to the devaluing of women, and hence to the suffering of girls who know that they’re not desired or valued.  Like Cattapan, we abhor sexism and the devaluation of women, but doubt that the availability or otherwise of IVF sex selection will have much effect.  Sexist attitudes are already endemic in the communities about which she expresses concern and the causes for this are much more deep-rooted than sex selection, which is surely more symptom than cause.

There’s also a question about the proper extent of state power.  Specifically, is the fact that behaviour involves sex stereotyping sufficient reason to ban it?  If the answer is ‘yes’ then perhaps it follows that some instances of sex selection should be prohibited.  However, if applied consistently, this would be a very authoritarian position and one that might entail much more government interference in family life (as the state assumes powers to prevent parents from raising their children in stereotypical ways) and in cultural and religious life (as the state seeks to prevent some minorities – including possibly some rather large ones like the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches – from engaging in religious practices that involve sex stereotyping).

Because of these concerns about authoritarianism, we propose that the state should only use legal force against those instances of stereotyping that are directly and substantially harmful or unjust (e.g. those which cause or constitute workplace discrimination).  And, for reasons explored in our report and elsewhere, our view is that sex selection wouldn’t, or needn’t, be substantially harmful or unjust and so shouldn’t be banned.

Population Sex Imbalance and Ethnic Minorities: One reason for regarding sex selection in the UK as not substantially harmful overall is that, even if it were allowed, it wouldn’t cause population sex imbalance because, within the population as a whole, the number of people wanting a boy is about the same as that wanting a girl.

However, as Cattapan rightly says, there may be specific imbalance issues within ethnic minority subgroups (e.g. son-preference within some Chinese and Indian communities).  This raises a difficult question: to what extent should policy for the whole population be driven by issues specific to subgroups?

One factor that makes a difference is size. According to recent census data (England and Wales 2011) 86% of the population describe themselves as ‘white’, while ‘Indian’ and ‘Chinese’ groups make up just 2.5% and 0.7% respectively.  So one way of framing the question is – can restricting the reproductive behaviour of the entire population be justified by reference to a problem that would occur in 3.2% of the population?  And 3.2% is actually a generous estimate because lots of people with Chinese or Indian backgrounds reject sex selection.

There must be a subgroup population size below which it would be disproportionate to restrict everyone’s behaviour just to prevent a subgroup problem.  Whether that’s 1%, 3%, or 5% is hard to specify non-arbitrarily but our suggestion was that the UK Chinese and Indian subgroups are probably below that proportionality threshold.  So while we might be concerned about population imbalance within these subgroups – in a context where total population balance is maintained – this isn’t a sufficient reason to restrict the reproductive options of the other 97% or so of the population.

Also, it does seem perverse to say to a ‘white’ woman with three sons that she’s not allowed to choose a daughter because, elsewhere in the country, there are ethnic minority families who would choose a son if given the chance.  Their son preferences have nothing to do with this woman and she may understandably feel aggrieved at having her choices restricted for reasons based entirely on other cultures’ allegedly sexist values – values that she doesn’t share and might well reject.

In short, we agree that sex selection may sometimes be morally objectionable. But, as things stand at the moment, it wouldn’t (if allowed) cause enough harm to justify the current legal prohibition, especially since the ban on sex selection also rules out cases which aren’t morally wrong at all (such as many ‘family balancing’ cases).

Stephen Wilkinson is Professor of Philosophy in the Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion at Lancaster University, United Kingdom.

Eve Garrard is Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of Philosophy at Manchester University, United Kindom.

Read Alana Cattapan’s August 13, 2013 post, Rethinking Sex Selection

One comment

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