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Is gender selection of foetuses ethical?

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Summary of story from CNN, August 16, 2011

A new maternal blood test can determine the sex of a foetus as early as seven weeks into a pregnancy.

This development, reported last week in the Journal of the American Medical Association, is a potential boon to parents who fear their children are at risk of a sex-linked condition.

If, for example, a particular disease affects only males and the foetus is female, a woman can avoid further invasive tests, such as amniocentesis, which carry a risk of miscarriage. But this technology is igniting a heated ethical debate before it is even clinically available.

Many fear that it will be misused and result in healthy foetuses being aborted if they are of an unwanted sex.

In countries such as China and India where the cultural preference for boys is well-documented, the practice of using ultrasound and amniocentesis followed by abortion to avoid giving birth to girls is startlingly common.

In some parts of rural India, where basic health care is hardly available, local clinics have sophisticated ultrasound machines used privately — and illegally — for sex selection. Such practices have already skewed sex ratios in these countries.

In China in 2005, there were 32 million more men under 20 than women. This has cast a shadow over the young men’s prospects of marriage and raised concerns about social instability and expansion of the sex industry.

It is bad news, too, for the women who are pressured to perform sex-selective abortions and then suffer the consequences.

It is possible that this new technology will be used for similar ends in some countries. In the United States, research on the sex preferences of parents does not reveal partiality toward boys, and current use of sperm sorting to select for sex before conception actually shows a slight preference for girls.

This circumvents the host of ethical issues raised by the selection of boys but does not make sex selection by abortion ethically unproblematic.

The ethical implications of this new technological achievement are therefore complicated by the cultural setting. While promising significant benefits from a medical perspective, it  raises serious social and ethical concerns.

Using it well, rather than abusing it, is a great challenge facing us all in coming years.

  1. How does it circumvent “the host of ethical issues raised by the selection of boys”? I genuinely don’t understand that bit.

    This will be one more tool used by people who want to select the sex of their child on grounds other than future health concerns. Their attitudes to sex selection will have to change before their behaviour does. I wouldn’t like to see a new diagnostic tool unused because of the possible implications, I also don’t see how misuse can be avoided in a climate where healthcare professionals are complicit in sex selection for non-health reasons.

  2. vicki wharton says:

    Or gender cleansing as we should term it, since that’s what it is … 32 million more men under 20 than women in China suggests that 32 million female foetuses approximately have been aborted in 20 years since the male/female conception ration tends to bounce around 50/50. That’s 1.6 million femicides a year in China on top of half a million a year in India… that’s a holocaust every three years …

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