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Sex-Selection in America

Nov 21, 2012 / By: Michael Spielman
Category: Abortion in the News

Last week, Abort73 posted a new video titled Girls Are… which highlights the tragedy of sex-selection abortion. Many of the comments that were posted to the video were variants of, "If only people in China could see this…" Implied in their plea is the assumption that sex-selection isn't something that happens in America. If only that were the case.

A couple months ago, I wrote about the booming, sex-selection industry that is emerging within many American fertility clinics. The emphasis in that story was how these clinics have become a hub for international clients wanting to choose the sex of their baby. Perhaps I should have given more attention to the fact that despite all the global publicity, the huge majority of their clients are United States citizens. Slate reports that "an estimated 4,000 to 6,000 sex-selection procedures are performed every year in this country. "Fertility doctors," they say, "foresee an explosion in sex-selection procedures on the horizon, as couples become accustomed to the idea that they can pay to beget children of the gender they prefer"

In contrast to much of the world, the tool of choice for sex-selection in America is not abortion, per se. It's in vitro fertilization, coupled with preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). Using this technique, Dr. Jeffrey Steinberg, the most public of America's sex-selection practitioners boasts that he can select a baby's gender with 99.9% accuracy. Does he offer a refund to the 0.01% who paid $20,000 for a child of a certain gender but wound up with the wrong one? As you'll see later on, he apparently does not.

Because sex-selection in America is driven by PGD instead of abortion, some argue that it is a less egregious practice. Writing for RH Reality Check, an online community dedicated to advancing abortion rights, authors Sujatha Jesudason and Anat Shenker-Osorio declare: "Although alarmists cite an undocumented rise in abortion due to sex selection, more and more the interest is on meddling before implantation." Another author adds, "Weeding out the 'boy embryos' from the 'girl embryos' in a petri dish in a laboratory seems a far cry from the seemingly ruthless sex-selective abortion phenomenon that has haunted India and China." Though they all believe sex-selection in America is a problem, they don't think it has anything to do with abortion. Here's what they're missing.

Despite decades of unyielding attempts to redefine the beginning of pregnancy, biologically speaking, new life begins at conception, not at implantation. These doctors may be "meddling" before implantation, but they're meddling after fertilization–which is morally problematic. Doctors do not have the power to create a boy or a girl. This new technology simply gives them the ability to determine whether a pre-implanted embryo is a boy or a girl. The Slate article I referenced earlier tells the story of one of Dr. Steinberg's "typical" patients, Megan Simpson (who's name was changed at her request). The author of the article, Jasmeet Sidhu, notes in a follow up piece that nearly all the women she interviewed requested that their names be changed for the story.

In Simpson's case, 18 of her eggs were harvested; eleven were fertilized. The doctors then give these embryos five days to grow before extracting a single cell from each embryo to determine the baby's gender. If the woman wants a boy, only the male embryos are implanted. If she wants a girl, only the female embryos are implanted. This is advertised as being morally superior to abortion, but guess what happens to the unwanted embryos? They are frozen or discarded, something none of the articles I read bothered to mention–perhaps because the authors are operating on the assumption that the tiny human beings brought into existence through this process are ethically insignificant. This of course is the dark underbelly of the entire fertility business. The practice of fertilizing excess eggs is not limited to the sex-selection industry. It is standard protocol across the board.

As it turned out for Megan Simpson, none of the embryos were suitable for implantation. Dr. Steinberg kept the cash but sent Simpson on her way. Devastated, Megan opted to try the procedure again three months later. This time it worked. Sidhu writes:

After nearly four years and $40,000, Simpson’s dreams of being a “girl-mommy” were finally going to come true [though] Simpson had to work six days a week right up until the delivery and months afterward to repay the loan she took. “My husband and I stared at our daughter for that first year. She was worth every cent. Better than a new car, or a kitchen reno.”

Dr. Mark Hughes, who pioneered PGD technology, condemns the practice as it's now being used. The intent of PGD, he states,  is "to diagnose and treat and hopefully cure disease. And last time I checked, your gender wasn't a disease."  Marcy Darnovsky, director of the Center for Genetics and Society, calls sex-selection PGD, “high-tech eugenics.” Art Caplan, a medical bioethicist at NYU calls it "raw sexism," and believes the push for "designer babies" won't end with mere gender preference. For a time, Dr Steinberg even advertised on his website that couples could choose their baby’s eye and hair color, in addition to gender. For his part, Dr Steinberg seems to court the ethics-be-damned reputation he's been able to earn. According to the Slate article, he never intended to make gender selection his niche, but when the ethics committee of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine came out against the practice, "[he] took it on as a challenge"–refusing to let some committee tell him what he could or couldn't do! Clearly, Dr. Steinberg is pro-choice to the core. Incidentally, his business has quadrupled since he started advertising PGD for gender selection; gender selection in America now brings in annual revenue north of $100 million.

In a video interview for ABC News, Dr Steinberg plays dumb and declares: "Sex-selection is illegal in most of the world for reasons we're not clearly able to understand." It almost boggles the mind that he can say this with a straight face. The global gender imbalance created by sex-selection is a problem of incalculable proportions, and this is true whether you are morally opposed to abortion or not. Even if you see no problem with aborting female embryos and fetuses on the basis of their sex, the fallout is a world devoid of hundreds of millions of women. The Slate article gives the impression that sex-selection in America actually favors girls, but there is no statistical data to back up this assertion. On this point, the RH Reality article is more helpful, despite its love-affair with abortion. The authors write:

Son preference, missing girls, sex selection: We may seek to label these Chinese or Indian issues, but they exist here in America… The extent of sex-selective practices in the U.S. is hard to assess, since it’s rarely something people will admit to doing. But we can take an educated guess by observing alterations in expected sex ratios. If nature has its way, women will likely give birth to 100 girls for every 102 to 106 boys. And among first-time parents in the U.S., that’s exactly what we see.

However, as birth order rises, apparently so does selection — at least, in certain ethnic groups. With U.S. 2000 Census data, researchers investigating Korean, Chinese, and Indian communities found that, after one girl, parents have as many as 1.17 boys per girl the second time. With two girls at home, this goes up to 1.51 boys per girl for the third child. These skewed ratios aren’t present among other ethnic groups in America.

By their logic, the real problem is not that females are being aborted at a higher rate than males. After all, they believe male and female embryos to be equally inconsequential. No, the real problem from their perspective is that we view sons and daughters differently–which is why they maintain that the only way to curb son preference is to start viewing babies through a genderless lens–much as they're attempting to do in Sweden. Sex-selection, they say, "requires adherence to the fallacy that sons and daughters are biologically limited in what they can do and who they can be… Wanting a specific sex requires us to believe in and thus perpetuate the notion of two genders." Suddenly, the argument isn't about valuing girls, it's about pretending that they are exactly the same as boys. And of course, one of the primary means of maintaining this ruse is to eliminate the demands of pregnancy.

Ironically, after decrying the bigotry of son preference, the real point of the article is to cast derision on the legislative attempt to ban sex-selection abortion in America. Because their most fundamental allegiance is to abortion, they lack the wherewithal to oppose it, even when it's being used to systematically abort females. In fact, they end their article with one of the most bizarre arguments you're ever likely to encounter. Referring again to a proposed ban on sex-selection abortion, they write, "These kinds of policies are part of a culture that makes sex selection a logical choice for women hoping to keep daughters from a sexist, repressive world that seeks only to limit who they are and what they are allowed to do." Read that again if you didn't catch its odious drift. Even if you allow for a bit of sarcasm, they're essentially arguing that one reason women selectively abort their daughters is because they don't want those daughters to grow up in a society that is so oppressive to women that it would take away their right to indiscriminately abort their children.

Planned Parenthood and the abortion lobby helped ensure that sex-selection restrictions were kept off the books, allowing America to retain the honor of having the most unrestricted abortion policy in the world. Planned Parenthood understands as well as anyone that a threat to abortion on any front is a threat to abortion on every front. The reason they can't even entertain the idea that it's wrong to discriminately abort females is because their entire position depends on the amorality of abortion and the moral insignificance of unborn children. If they were to condemn sex-selection abortions, they would essentially be admitting that abortion doesn't just kill an abstract thing, it kills a tiny, human boy or girl. At the end of the day, sex-selection legislation in America is largely symbolic. Even had the proposed restrictions passed, it's unlikely that any lives would have been saved. Abortion is legal on demand, for any reason or no reason. Women don't have to provide justification for their decision, which would essentially make sex-selective restrictions impossible to enforce.  

So how do we combat sex-selection in America? By combatting abortion in general and exposing the fact that PGD does not make sex-selection any less abhorrent. A September story from the Huffington Post tells the story of a 32-year-old mother who used PGD to ensure that her fourth child was a girl. She says, "I am a Christian and believe that if God did not want me to have a daughter, then there is nothing I could have done to have one. I believe it's all up to Him anyway." By that logic, whatever happens is God's will; we are not morally accountable for any of our choices. Needless to say, that's a dangerous way to live. Sex-selection in America may look differently than it does in China or India, but don't be fooled. Gender selection is a horrific practice, no matter what kind of face you put on it.

Michael Spielman is the founder and director of Abort73.com. His book, Love the Least (A Lot), is available as a free download. You can also find him on Facebook and Google+. Abort73 is part of Loxafamosity Ministries, a 501c3, Christian education corporation. If you have been helped by the information available at Abort73.com, please consider making a donation.

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