COMMENT March 2002

Jack or Jill?

The era of consumer-driven eugenics has begun

There are things about one's life and especially about one's children that cannot be known in advance and to which it would be foolish to assume a right outcome or a wrong one. How, for example, could you possibly know whether you and your family would be better off having had a boy child and then a girl, or a girl first, or two girls or two boys? What would your standard for comparison be? Which child would you have given up in order to have had the imaginary right family? You might have thought you wanted a girl, and then gotten one not at all like the girl you expected—not gentle, not Barbie-doll loving, utterly unlike your childhood self. You might have thought that having one child of each sex was perfect, and then found that family harmony eluded you nonetheless. Certainly, the more precise your expectations of your children and the more convinced you are that those expectations can be met (indeed, that you deserve to have them met), the more disappointed you are likely to be. Without some humility in the face of the unknown and unknowable—without some fundamental willingness to accept and to love whatever child you get—parenthood would be a very different, and a lesser, thing.

One might think that all this would be obvious to anyone who was ever part of a family, or read a novel about one. But in an era when people can shop, online, for sperm and egg donors of specified height and hair texture and IQ—in an era, in other words, of consumer-driven, privatized eugenics—it's easy to forget about what we cannot control or predict. In this environment radical reproductive technologies tend to slide into use when someone wants them and can pay. There's always at least one fertility doctor out there who will do anything, no matter how risky or ethically dubious. Religious absolutists fume; free-market purists and biotech groupies celebrate; and the rest of us scratch our heads, troubled by a vague sense that something's wrong here.

For several years now clients of an infertility clinic called The Genetics and IVF Institute, in Fairfax, Virginia, have had access to a sperm-sorting technique that allows them to choose—with about 90 percent reliability for girls and 73 for boys—the sex of their child. Some people use this service to avoid passing on serious diseases that can be inherited only by boys. But most use it for what might be called social or aesthetic reasons: they think one child of each sex makes for the ideal family; they have particular goals for their children, which they imagine are best fulfilled by one sex or the other. For these customers the Genetics and IVF Institute has a principle: it's called "family balancing," and it means that institute doctors will do the procedure only for people who already have one or more children of one sex and want a child of the opposite sex. This is supposed to be an answer to the charge of gender discrimination, the charge that by offering this service they are catering to people who value one sex over the other—people like the parents in India and China who have substantially upset the balance of the sexes in some regions by aborting (categorically undesirable) female fetuses. But because most of the clients using the sperm-sorting method presumably did not use it the first time around (and therefore had to take whatever they got), there's no guarantee that they do not value one sex over the other.

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