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November 2003. UK Health Minister John Reid asserts that sex selection will be permitted only on "compelling medical grounds" Designer Babies People have always wished to control the physical and mental attributes of their children, including gender and intelligence. Biometrics

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Designer Babies

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People have always wished to control the physical and mental attributes of their children, including gender and intelligence. In some societies, babies with the wrong chromosomes are killed either before or after birth.

In some cases, it is said that there are medical reasons for regulating the gender of the future child. For example where the prospects for the pregnant mother are significantly different with the gender of the child, or where the chances of the child's being affected by some genetically transmitted disorders depend on its gender.

In other cases, there are socioeconomic or dynastic reasons for preferring boys or girls. In some societies dowry is paid by the girl's family to the boy's family, so an unmarried girl represents an economic liability. In other societies dowry is paid to the girl's family, so an unmarried girl represents an economic asset. One of the most important chapters in the religious history of England resulted from King Henry VIII's difficulties in getting a son.

Finally, parents may have personal preferences, perhaps based on existing siblings. There is a social norm of a "balanced" family -- one boy, one girl -- to which parents would like to conform.

The medical profession sorts out these reasons into serious and frivolous ones.  Not surprisingly, it regards medical reasons as the most serious.

Down the ages, people have proposed various practices at the time of conception to influence the gender. Men were supposed to lie on their right side, if they wanted sons. Different times of day, different phases of the moon, differerent diets and positions have all been tried.

People have also proposed various ways to determine the gender of an unborn child. Some people claim to be able to see it from the shape of the bump, or the complexion of the mother.

Medical technology now provides highly reliable ways of determining the gender of an unborn child (especially if invasive tests for other conditions are performed). Medical technology also provides ways of selecting gender, either by selecting fertilized eggs, or by sorting sperm before conception.

Medical ethics then enters a discourse of availability. Under what conditions, for what purposes, should these technologies be available. Should gender information be denied to parents from social groups suspected of selective termination?

Availability refers both to access and to funding. Should parents be able to pay for a given treatment themselves, and should parents be entitled to this treatment as a normal part of funded healthcare? If there is a shortage of resources to provide this treatment, on what criteria will these resources be allocated? The question of funding and resources is political and economic, as well as ethical. But if we set aside these questions, there are still some basic ethical questions about availability.

Some people will argue that these medical technologies and procedures should be available to some parents and not others. Perhaps available for serious purposes and denied for frivolous purposes. But who shall decide whether a purpose is serious or frivolous -- the doctor, the professor of ethics, or the parent herself? Sorting out serious and frivolous purpose is an ethical issue.

A deeper ethical question arises from the fact that availability drives commodity. The possibility of selection for any purpose reframes the processes of parenthood. The term "designer baby" draws attention to regarding the baby as a (designed) commodity.
more Sorting Out
Availability and Commodity

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Page updated November 15th, 2003
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