Gender Selection in Genetics

Gender Selection in Genetics
by Michael Szul on 2008-05-13 08:14:33
tags: ethics, gender selection, genetics, morality

“The world has achieved brilliance without wisdom, power without conscience. Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants.” — General Omar Bradley, Armistice Day Speech 1948.

Humanity is far from deserving the use of the word “perfection” in its vocabulary. We know not the meaning behind this word, but most certainly we succeed in our attempts to transform it into a twisted, broken visage of whatever truth about it that we were aware. Humanity does not strive for perfection. Humanity strives for its interpretation of perfection without truly ever knowing what perfection really is in this world. We have most definitely entered into this world as babes with the most spectacular toys. And what we do with them could change things for better or for worse.

The flourishing of technology is paramount to the advancement of our species, but is it always good to do something just because you can? At what point do we draw the lines of manipulation? We may play Creator, but who reigns as Creator over us? If we control another’s destiny through our own genetic tampering and decisions, would we be correct to assume that another controls us in the same such manner?

In 1987, a USDA researcher developed a technology for use on farms that was capable of ”sex-selection”, allowing you to preconfigure the gender of an animal’s offspring (Steel 58). Using a machine called a flow cytometer, this technique took an animal’s sperm and divided it into X-chromosome and Y-chromosome enriched samples that were then used to impregnate a female of the species (Steel 58). It didn’t take long before a company called the Genetics and IVF Institute (GIVF) obtained exclusive rights to the technology and modified it for human use, calling it “Microsort” (Steel 58).

With best intentions in mind, in 1993, GIVF began clinical trials for families with a history of X-chromosome linked mutations passed down from mothers to sons, such as hemophilia and muscular dystrophy (Steel 58). It didn’t take long; however, before the institute began fielding calls from couples interested in obtaining a preferred gender (Steel 58). In 1998, GIVF began accepting patients towards this end under the title of “family balancing” (Steel 58).

Though statistics have not been independently verified, GIVF’s success rate (88% for girl; 73% for boys; 17% pregnancy rate per cycle) is relatively high (Steel 59). And to maintain a clinical rather than commercial feel, the institute (while under the strict guidelines of the USDA) works only with married couples that have one or more children and are seeking the non-represented (or underrepresented) of the two genders (Steel 59). The GIVF also will not accept any women candidates over the age of 39 (Steel 59).

At first glance, this procedure seems relatively harmless. Indeed, we can even argue that it is beneficial. But have we ever been a race that fulfills just its “needs” and doesn’t confuse its “wants”?

The morality, probably, isn’t in the procedure. In fact, a lot of moral dilemmas stem not from the issue itself, but from the misuse or misinterpretation. Medically, this would be a greatly beneficial procedure to help eliminate the possibility of debilitating diseases that are X-chromosome born.

Mother Nature has done a fine job of distributive justice during her reign over this planet. Unfortunately we have taken her in a strangle hold and supplanted her. What egos must we have to assume that we can do a better job at ordering the universe? Let us not forget that the original goal of this procedure was to mass-produce a certain gender of animal for livestock purposes (Steel 58). Are we no longer farmers? Are we now merely industrialists? Are there only assembly lines left? With such power in our hands, will we be able to balance it, or will our heart weigh heavier than the feather on Anubis’ scale.

What motivates such a procedure in the first place? Health concerns? Maybe, but this is not likely. It seems more probable that it would be used out of our own selfish inclination rather than for health reasons.

Choosing a child’s gender because of your own desires seems a little selfish. It is your duty to raise your children to the best of your ability, but I see no duty in determining the child’s gender for it. Kantian ethics would see greed such as this as only using the future child as a means to your goal and not as an end itself.

And what would the rest of the populace do? If this situation were generalize, if everyone were to want a boy, would this not cause a disruption of the natural balance, and a hypothetical, all-male race. This may seem unlikely in America but what of other countries where sexism is a major problem and male children are preferred? Already the American Society for Reproductive Medicine has concerns over the potential for gender discrimination with the use of Microsort’s technology (Steel 63).

In America, “gender is not a disease”, but in countries like China, India, and the Philippines, what’s to stop an all-male master race from developing with a minimal number of females relegated to slave-like roles of nothing more than birthing husks (Steel 63). If such an act were universalized, would this truly be a good thing?

According to moralist W.D. Ross, we all have several duties that must be observed in order for us to act in an ethical way (Boss 26). These duties, however, may be overridden by other more important ones according to Ross’ description of prima facie duties (Boss 26). It is understandable that two of the most important duties we have are that of beneficence (help others in need) and nonmaleficence (do no harm) (Boss 26). At first glance, it may seem that this offers support to genetic tampering in selecting a child’s gender. But look more closely. The only real way that this fits in line with moral thinking would be if the genetic engineering were accomplished solely for the child’s benefit such as in cases of genetic defects. In all other cases, there is another duty that stands out more appropriately: justice.

Justice not just in the usual sense of the word, but perhaps leaning more towards John Rawls idea of “Justice as Fairness”(Rawls 58). Let’s be completely honest. What demographic of people are actually going to get a chance to use this costly procedure? This procedure will not be doled out with a “veil of ignorance” towards a person’s social standing (Rawls 58). Every single person will not get a chance to experience this experiment, and those that actually would need it the most, those with the potential of genetic defects, will be brushed aside in favor of the wealthy upper-class family vying for a male heir.

Besides, what type of character would a person have, who deliberately manipulates those that haven’t even had a chance to experience life. Wouldn’t Aristotle look down on this? We become people of good character by growth and habit (Boss 36). Wouldn’t we grow more as people if we were to let Mother Nature takes it course and chose our children’s genders for us? If everything were already mapped out for us, how would we grow? I fear that we would become just as autonomous (not to mention monotonous) as the new race that we were slowly creating.

Let’s discuss this “new race” for a moment. Naturally, it all has to begin with a single step. Many scientists and ethicists, including Dr. Arthur Caplan from the Center for Bioethics, see this type of gender selection as leading us down the path towards the acceptance of eugenics, improving humans through genetics – or building the perfect race (Steel 63). Is it really appropriate to order a child the same way that one would order a pizza (Steel 63)? And with the building of this perfect race, is it really plausible to believe that it will be to everyone’s benefit? Again, will justice be served? Or will the gap between the elite and common grow further apart?

We walk a fine line with all types of genetics. We have the capacity to greatly improve the quality of life, to eliminate many diseases, and to repair broken bodies, but will our egos allow us to use this technology just for these purposes, or will we instead deify ourselves and try to become the gods of our illusionary perfect world?

Gender selection is a great idea, but only in cases where genetic diseases are eminent. There is no need, however, to selfishly manipulate our children for our own ends and out of our own inclination. The dangers of falling victim to this trap are all too harrowing and could bring a quick death to many of the freedoms that we enjoy. For if you are not one of the perfect, one of the elite, do you really think you will be held in equal consideration with the rest of the popular?

Works Cited

Boss, Judith A. Analysing Moral Issues. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002.

Bradley, General Omar. Lecture. Armistice Day Speech. 1948.

Rawls, John. “A Theory of Justice.” Analysing Moral Issues comp. Judith A. Boss. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002.

Steel, Tanya Wenman. “Would You (Should You) Choose Your Baby’s Sex?”. Child December – January 2003: 57 – 63.