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Sex Selection and the Privatization of American Life

April 9th, 2008 | 2 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

In his article last Thursday, William Saletan highlighted sex selection’s apparent arrival to American shores. He writes:

Now comes further evidence of this effect. Two days ago, economists Douglas Almond and Lena Edlund published an article in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences examining the ratio of male to female births in “U.S.-born children of Chinese, Korean, and Asian Indian parents.” Among whites, the boy-girl ratio was essentially constant, regardless of the number of kids in a family or how many of them were girls. In the Asian-American sample, the boy-girl ratio started out at the same norm: 1.05 to 1. But among families whose first child was a girl, the boy-girl ratio among second kids went up to 1.17 to 1. And if the first two kids were girls, the boy-girl ratio among third kids went up to 1.5 to 1. This 50 percent increase in male probability is directly contrary to the trend among whites, who tend to produce a child of the same sex as the previous child.

There’s no plausible innocent explanation for this enormous and directionally abnormal shift in probability. The authors conclude that the numbers are “evidence of sex selection, most likely at the prenatal stage.”

While Wesley Smith rightly nails Saletan for his gross misunderstanding of the pro-life position and its purported dependence upon patriarchy, Saletan’s analysis is interesting for its emphasis on the privatization of sex selection that has occurred because of technological improvements.

If you look at sex selection as a cultural phenomenon, that may be true. But if you look at it as a technology, the opposite is just as plausible. The spread of fetal or embryonic sex-identification tests, which can be taken in the privacy of your home at increasingly early stages of pregnancy, makes it easier for sex selection to spread beyond its original cultural base. So does the emergence of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, which lets you chuck your conceived offspring before pregnancy even begins.

The phenomenon mirrors that of pornography, the access to which Jason Byassee astutely points out has become increasingly privatized through the internet. While technology is often hailed as helping us connect–airplanes, cars, email, etc.–there is something isolating about it as well. When used by individuals, for the sake of individuals, it has a potentially corrosive impact in that it empowers people to achieve pleasures in isolation, which removes their need for human community.

It is easy to see how such a line of thought could descend into techno-phobia, but there is no reason for it to. Better to simply acknowledge the dangers and take steps to overcome them–steps that may include improving current technologies.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.