Choosing Gender

June 24, 2008

After our second son died someone said what a pity it was the boys who died, because of the farm.

I’ll put to one side the fact that we could have had any number of sons who might not have wanted to farm and any number of daughters who might have choosen to and concentrate on the issue: would the death of a daughter somehow be less distressing than that of a son? Of course not.

Among the many things I learnt from the short lives and early deaths of my sons was the truth in the words expressed so often by prospective parents, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a boy or a girl, as long as the baby  is happy and healthy.

No doubt that colours my view in the debate surrounding the Bioethics Council recommendation that parents undergoing IVF be allowed to choose the gender of their chidlren.

I don’t agree with  Rev Dr Michael McCabe and John Kelinsman  who said:

Catholic teaching on human dignity asserts the inviolable right to life from the moment of fertilisation to death. This right is totally unrelated to questions regarding the quality of life.

We are disturbed that there is a growing trend among some to equate the right to life with the absence of disease or with a certain notion of normality.

From a Catholic perspective, all embryos are equal and deserve unconditional respect. Therefore, embryos with genetic abnormalities have as much right to exist and be selected as those who are supposedly free of genetic abnormalities.

I loved my sons inspite of their disabilities which meant they passed none of the developmental milestones and could do no more the day they died than they could the day they were born at 20 weeks and five years respectively.  But if I was a prospective parent undergoing IVF and could choose an embryo with or without a disability, I would not hesitate to choose the one without.

But I am hesitant about the next step to allow choosing gender, even if as the ODT says:

On the face of it, there is much that could be said in favour of this, not least its logic.

The parents-to-be will have made a number of challenging, potentially life-changing decisions to progress their status to this point and it can be argued, as the council has indeed done, that there are simply insufficient reasons to withold that final decision from the persons involved.

But:

It comes back to such broad concepts as “interfering with nature”, “designing babies”, manipulating genetic material for shallow or unethical ends, and so on.

For while the council was recommending sex selection in the most narrow of circumstances, many would see the move as a dangerous precedent: an open invitation for the advancement of other selection crtieria for “social” reasons.

Whatever one’s cultural or spiritual background and beliefs, there is something inherently disturbing about the prospect of a world in which babies are pre-selected according to a set of supposedly desirable genetic traits and characteristics – which is where opponents of the sex selection report can see this ultimately headed.

After our sons died a lot of people said we were lucky we still had a daughter. It’s hard to appreciate luck when you’ve just buried a child, but I understood what they meant. However, I am not sure if they would have understood if I’d explained that one of the lucky things about having a healthy child was that it taught me to be realistic about parenting.

Had none of our children survived I might have harboured romantic ideas that I could have been the perfect mother of a perfect child. As it was I learned from experience perfection and parenting are mutually exclusive and that we carry on loving our children inspite of the imperfections – theirs and ours.

Parenting, at least as much as marriage is for better and for worse and the idea that a certain number of girls or boys would make a family better just buys in to the false idea that that there is a “right” number and gender balance for a family.

I have no problem with choosing the sex of a baby to avoid a gender-linked health problem. But I am uncomfortable about taking that extra step to allow choosing a boy or a girl to gender balance families.

Professor Lord Robert Winston discussed this on Nine To Noon  this morning.


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