Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Girl or Boy: You Choose

Keith Pavlischek


January 10, 2005

In a Washington Post front page article, "A Boy for You, a Girl for Me: Technology Allows for Choice" (12/14/04), journalist Rob Stein profiles a couple that would prefer a boy so he can work in their family company. Stein details how fertility laboratories now provide the technological means to give them their wish.

Jaydee Hanson, director for human genetics policy at the International Center for Technology Assessment, doesn't think this is a good idea. In a letter to the editor (12/22/04) he offers three arguments against legally permitting couples to use new technologies for sex selection.

First, Hanson protests that sex selection for nonmedical purposes isn't really a "choice." Instead, it is sex discrimination. To want to "choose" a boy instead of a girl for a future business partner is sex discrimination, showing a social-engineering bias. "As we work to prevent sex discrimination in the work place," writes Hanson, "we also should be concerned about sex discrimination in who gets to be born."

Second, Hanson tells us that many nations have already banned sex selection for nonmedical purposes and that if the United States doesn't follow suit "we will have market driven eugenics for the profit of a few corporations." And finally, Hanson serves up a slippery slope argument: "If we can discriminate about the gender of children, it becomes easier to justify other kinds of genetic discrimination."

Hanson's objections are not convincing. First, if the new technology allows "gender discrimination," it is nonsense to say that it does not entail "freedom of choice." The new technology offers a set of previously unavailable options to a couple. Confronted with these options the couple does indeed make a choice. It may be a wicked and evil choice. It may be a good and praiseworthy choice. It may be a morally neutral choice like choosing between chocolate and vanilla ice cream. The relevant question is whether the couple's freedom to choose the sex of their child should be restricted, limited, or forbidden by law.

Second, Hanson's worry that "we will have market-driven eugenics for the profit of a few corporations" is only interesting if you accept the premise that the freedom to choose the sex of your child should be regulated or outlawed in the first place. And that judgment rests entirely on the claim that such sex selection is a morally blameworthy choice. But if you accept the premise that there is nothing morally blameworthy about sex selection, then there is little reason for it not to be market driven.

Nor is Hanson's slippery-slope argument convincing. There is no obvious logical or legal inconsistency in permitting freedom of choice in sex selection before birth while outlawing sexual discrimination after birth. After all, U.S. law has permitted such discrimination before birth for a long time. Under Roe v. Wade, a woman can choose an abortion for whatever reason she wants. On those terms, there would appear to be no moral reason, including objections to sex selection, that could trump her autonomous freedom to choose an abortion, even if the abortion were for the purpose of sex selection.

If the law may not stand in the way of a woman's choice to destroy a fetus for reasons of sex selection, it is impossible to see how the law might regulate her decision to choose the sex of her child when it does not involve the destruction of the fetus.

If you are offended by the consequences of that logic, too bad. That's the moral and legal logic of Roe v. Wade. As long as Roe v. Wade is the law of the land, you may be personally opposed to eugenic sex selection, but you simply may not impose your personal, anti-sexist, anti-gender-discrimination morality on the rest of society.

—Keith Pavlischek,  Fellow
    Center for Public Justice


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