Let’s not dirty our hands with social sex selection

Prof Stephen Wilkinson, from Keele University, has published a controversial article supporting social sex selection on the BBC site, ‘Scrubbing Up’. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/8665282.stm

Wilkinson argues that it is time to lift the prohibition in the United Kingdom on using assisted reproductive methods to identify and choose the sex of one’s child for social reasons.  In a radio interview he talked of some patients who find it very stressful not to have a child of the desired sex.

Sex selection is already permitted in the UK using pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), where parents undergoing assisted reproductive treatments identify and discard embryos who may be carrying a sex-related disease.  This is often elusively described as a process aimed at eradicating a particular disease, but of course what happens is that the unfortunate embryo carrying the disease is killed, or ‘allowed to die’ as the euphemism goes. This does not move us forward in any way in unravelling, let alone finding cures for the diseases in question.  It just kills the tiny human carrier.

PGD, thankfully, is not permitted in the UK simply because one has a preference for a boy or a girl. It is this restriction which Prof Wilkinson thinks should be lifted.  He argues that sex selection should be allowed within the parameters of our ‘carefully regulated reproductive medicine sector’.  This is the sector, CORE notes, which tolerates the raffling of human eggs, or the retrieval of sperm from the dead, which ponders whether mothers should donate eggs to their daughters and vice versa, or thinks the combination of animal/human gametes for research purposes is an excellent idea.  Safe hands?

But let us look further afield.

On March 6 this year,  ‘The Economist’ magazine grappled courageously with the issue of sex selection, with a dramatic front cover entitled ‘Gendercide’, which it explored in detail under the heading ‘The worldwide war on baby girls’ . It is almost impossible to describe the true extent and horror of what is happening in the aftermath of sex selection in countries such as China and India, where even though the practice is officially banned, girls (as embryos or in the womb or immediately after birth) have been discarded by tens of millions.

Nick Eberstadt, a demographic expert from Washington DC, describes the situation in ‘The Economist’ article as ‘the fateful collision between overweening son preference, the use of rapidly spreading prenatal sex-determination technology and declining fertility.’

Prof Wilkinson argues that over here in our nice world, there is unlikely to be a difference in numbers between those preferring boys and those preferring girls. So it is OK for us in the UK because we have a regulator and there are unlikely to be any significant demographic consequences anyway.

Sorry, Prof Wilkinson, but we believe we have a far greater duty to the world at large than to the ‘interests’ of a handful of patients in the United Kingdom who feel depressed because their family is not neatly balanced.

In particular we have a global responsibility to those struggling for equality in countries like China and India, to ensure that endemic discrimination against millions of women is eliminated during all stages of life, not least at the very beginning.

We must show total solidarity and lead by example.  A very loud ‘No’ to social sex selection.

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