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Pink and blue booties
Should parents choose the sex of their baby?

It’s one of the most common questions to ask a pregnant woman: ‘is it a boy or a girl?’ Many people ask it without much thought – and many couples hope for one sex over another.

But this question perpetuates the idea that the sex of the baby matters. As the number of people identifying as gender non-binary rises, perhaps it is time to do away with asking whether the baby is male or female.

In the lead up to the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) releasing its anticipated decision regarding a proposal to allow non-medical sex selection, debate raged over the ethics of parents-to-be choosing the sex of their child. Currently, sex selection is only available for medical reasons, such as an unborn child being susceptible to an inherited disease.

In April 2017, the NHMRC announced that it had upheld its ban on non-medical sex selection, but pointed out that each state and territory could develop its own legislation. In addition, some couples are going overseas to IVF clinics where non-medical sex selection is legal. If you had access to the technology, would you want to choose the sex of your baby? And what’s more, should you want to?

The gender divide

The biggest problem with allowing non-medical sex selection is it reinforces gender stereotypes, says Dr Tamara Browne, Lecturer in Health Ethics, Law and Professional Development in Deakin University’s Faculty of Health.

She points out that it also reinforces gender essentialism, which is the notion that the psychologies of the sexes are different – a part of our biology. ‘It is a common belief, but it is unfounded, constrains parent-child relationships, and underlies sexism,’ she argues.

While some people might believe that it is ideal to have gender balance in a family, Dr Browne suggests it perpetuates a one-dimensional view of gender. ‘The notion of gender balancing ignores the fact that humans do not only come in two sexes. Up to 1.7% of people are born intersex,’ Dr Browne explains. And giving parents the right to choose the sex of their baby isn’t just about facilitating gender-based parenting, it also opens the floodgates for human engineering. If this is allowed, there is little case against choosing height, eye colour and other qualities.

‘I bet that any “advantages” one might think of depend on the assumption that being male or female causes one to have certain personality attributes, propensities and behaviours – an assumption which is so far not supported by good evidence,’ she adds. Dr Browne says that the problem lies not in a desire for children to have specific genitalia or physiological differences, but relies on beliefs about gender that are unfounded.

'The notion of gender balancing ignores the fact that humans do not only come in two sexes. Up to 1.7% of people are born intersex.'

Dr Tamara Browne,
Lecturer in Health Ethics, Law and Professional Development, Deakin University

Is choice a modern civil liberty?

But not everyone agrees. When the ban was upheld, Mark Bowman, medical director of Gena Fertility argued that gender-selection IVF should be given the green light. He has pointed out that only a very small proportion want to choose the sex of their child; in most cases he sees parents seeking a healthy baby of any sex. He says that while people might expect a demand for boys to become heirs, a mother who’d like a little girl more often drives the request for sex selection.

According to Michael Chapman, Fertility Society of Australia president, offering sex selection to couples isn’t about picking the sex of the family’s first child. ‘I see many distraught couples with three or four children of the same sex who want to have a child of the opposite sex,’ he has told the media.

Raising the next generation of people

Nonetheless, Dr Browne argues that as a society we could work towards getting better at addressing gender stereotypes. It begins with resetting social constructs such as ‘pink for girls and blue for boys,’ she suggests.

But beyond those obvious physical factors, Dr Browne challenges us to address the way boys and girls are raised. ‘What’s the difference between saying boys should play with cars and girls should play with dolls, and saying men should be out in the workforce and women should stay at home?’ She asks and adds, ‘If we impose gender segregation on children we can’t expect it to suddenly fall away when we’re adults.’

Dr Browne believes that maintaining a ban on sex selection will help to strengthening a move towards parent-child bonding that isn’t based on gendered activities. ‘There is no biological reason why parents can’t enjoy the kind of bond or parenting experiences they want with a child of any sex. The only thing constraining them is not their child’s biology, but society and its beliefs,’ she concludes.

Interested in the future of health ethics? Explore the range of health courses available at Deakin University.

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Dr Tamara Browne
Dr Tamara Browne

Lecturer in Health Ethics, Law and Professional Development, Faculty of Health, Deakin University
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