The Sex-Selection Market

Many of our most astute social critics, such as the Harvard progressive communitaran Michael Sandel, have warned us about recent trends that have allowed the pro-choice, “cash nexus” logic of the market to take over parts of our lives that can’t or shouldn’t be reduced to the domains of contract and consent.  Jasmett Sidhu has meticulously and provocatively described the way in which pre-implantation (of the embryo) genetic diagnosis allows our fertility clinics to offer parents—and especially mothers—the ability to choose the sex of their children.  This techno-ability to exercise choice for a price flourishes unfettered in our country:


A lack of regulation in the U.S. allows prenatal sex selection to be left to the market. In contrast, Canada's Assisted Human Reproduction Act states that no person shall "for the purpose of creating a human being, perform any procedure or provide, prescribe or administer anything that would ensure or increase the probability that an embryo will be of a particular sex." Similar restrictions on sex selection also exist in Australia and Britain. . . .

"There is a reluctance among Americans to think about these issues as a business. As a result, no one is minding the store.  . . .  The response, then, is to look for more revenue, more customers. But how much can we leave to the market?"

Many of the recent efforts to regulate sex selection in the United States have focused on the other end of the human reproduction spectrum. This past May a Republican-sponsored bill aiming to ban sex-selective abortions failed to pass in Congress. The Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act (PRENDA) would have made it illegal to perform an abortion on a woman if the reason for the abortion was because of the gender of the fetus.

But many argue that sex-selective abortion is not the same as prenatal sex selection. Weeding out the "boy embryos" from the "girl embryos" in a petri dish in a laboratory seems a far cry from the seemingly ruthless sex-selective abortion phenomenon that has haunted India and China and has been blamed for millions of "missing girls" in the region.  . . . 

In the meantime, however, women will continue to turn to doctors who enthusiastically advertise the practice within their fertility clinics. It is yet to be seen whether this will lead to a world where wondering about the gender of a prospective child will be a thing of the past.

Opposition to this aggressive unregulated marketing comes from both the left and the right.  European social democracies—thinking that individual choice can be limited according to personal dignity and the common good—oppose eugenics schemes that would turn children into manufactured commodities.  For our libertarians, of course, these Europeans have old-fashioned ideas about personal dignity and all that.  But even some of our feminists worry about the burden placed on girls who were consciously made to be girls.  Won’t the pressure be on them to conform to their parents’ stereotypes about feminine behavior?  How can I be my own person—autonomously transcending the limits of my biological being as a man or woman—if my biological being was chosen for me as the key to who I will be?

From the pro-life (or anti-abortion) right, being pro-choice on sex selection immediately calls to mind the people in India and China who have employed abortion to take out girls in favor of boys. Sidhu calls sex-selection abortion “ruthless.”  And our feminists, of course, are horrified that patriarchal prejudices would cause parents to prefer sons over daughters.

But our pro-choicers say there’s nothing wrong with abortion.  Our Democrats in their most recent platform have even eliminated their traditional admonition that it’s desirable that abortion should be “rare.”  So if there’s nothing wrong with abortion and nothing wrong with sex selection, why can we criticize the Indian or Chinese preference for boys and not the American woman’s preference for a girl?  Abortion or implantation?  Who’s to say which method is better?  It’s clear enough, though, which one is cheaper.

It’s that line of thinking that causes many Republicans to oppose the logic of “market forces” when it comes to parental choice in general.  These Republicans, who are so contemptuous of the economic paternalism of European social democracies, affirm their impulse to regulate when it comes to constraining reproductive choice.  Some of our Democrats, of course, do share the eugenics worries of the Europeans.

It does seem, as Sidhu observes, that even this bipartisan alliance in our country is very unlikely to become powerful enough to regulate effectively the sex-selection market.

We’ve seen in India and China that sex selection has produced all sorts of social pathologies connected with the dearth of women.  Might we see in America, eventually, the social pathologies that come with the dearth of men?   I admit, of course, I just don’t know.  (But consider that men are gradually disappearing from our better colleges already.)  I do know that conscious human choice by free individuals is much less likely to produce the roughly 50-50 result that seemingly blind nature does when it comes to sex selection.

Related Articles

Human skeletal stem cells isolated in breakthrough discovery

It's a development that could one day lead to much better treatments for osteoporosis, joint damage, and bone fractures.

Image: Nissim Benvenisty
Surprising Science
  • Scientists have isolated skeletal stem cells in adult and fetal bones for the first time.
  • These cells could one day help treat damaged bone and cartilage.
  • The team was able to grow skeletal stem cells from cells found within liposuctioned fat.
Keep reading Show less

How exercise helps your gut bacteria

Gut bacteria play an important role in how you feel and think and how well your body fights off disease. New research shows that exercise can give your gut bacteria a boost.

National Institutes of Health
Surprising Science
  • Two studies from the University of Illinois show that gut bacteria can be changed by exercise alone.
  • Our understanding of how gut bacteria impacts our overall health is an emerging field, and this research sheds light on the many different ways exercise affects your body.
  • Exercising to improve your gut bacteria will prevent diseases and encourage brain health.
Keep reading Show less

Giving octopuses ecstasy reveals surprising link to humans

A groundbreaking new study shows that octopuses seemed to exhibit uncharacteristically social behavior when given MDMA, the psychedelic drug commonly known as ecstasy.

Image: damn_unique via Flickr
Surprising Science
  • Octopuses, like humans, have genes that seem to code for serotonin transporters.
  • Scientists gave MDMA to octopuses to see whether those genes translated into a binding site for serotonin, which regulates emotions and behavior in humans
  • Octopuses, which are typically asocial creatures, seem to get friendlier while on MDMA, suggesting humans have more in common with the strange invertebrates than previously thought
Keep reading Show less