Preconception Gender Selection: Ethical or Unethical?
Humans have tried for some time to determine the gender of their child while it is still in the womb - Preconception Gender Selection: Ethical or Unethical? introduction. Craving sweets or a slower heart rate means you’ll be having a baby girl. Eating a lot of salty foods, having an especially active baby or carrying your baby low means it’s time to start painting the baby’s room blue. Advances in science have moved us beyond these old wives’ tales and allowed us to exactly determine the gender of a child before it is born through the use of an ultrasound. A major decision for most people currently is if you want to know what gender your baby will be before it is born.
While some are making that choice, others are choosing their child’s gender. I intend to address how this is possible, and if allowing such a choice is ethical. A significant change in gender determination is in progress. Many people are worried about the possibilities that eugenics will bring, including the possibility of gender determination through DNA modification. What these people are overlooking is, gender selection is already in use, and DNA modification is not necessary. Three hundred babies have already had their gender predetermined in the United States through the use of a process called sperm sorting.
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Sperm sorting was initially developed as a means to regulate the gender of offspring in cattle. Sperm sorting is achieved through exploitation of the size difference between the X and Y chromosome. The X and Y chromosome are those that will determine the gender of an offspring. The egg of a female contains two X chromosomes, and each sperm from the male contains either an X or a Y. If the sperm that inseminates the egg contains a Y chromosome the egg will mature into a male, if the sperm that inseminates the egg contains an X, the egg will mature into a female.
The X chromosome is approximately three times as large as the Y chromosome. Early methods of sperm sorting took advantage of the weight difference that is a result of their size difference. A sample of sperm was collected in a test tube, and then spun in a centrifuge, which separates the sample by weight. The X sperm will be at the very bottom of the tube while the Y sperm will be closer to the top. The major problem with this method is the high rate of speed at which the centrifuge spins in order to separate the sperm causes many collisions.
Sperm collide with each other and the wall of the test tube and this process can kill or damage healthy sperm. Major advances have solved this problem to a significant extent, and improved the process of sperm sorting enough to make it a reliable option for people already planning on using intrauterine insemination or in vitro fertilization (two methods that involve external insemination and subsequent implantation of a fertilized embryo). To reduce the impact and increase the accuracy of sperm sorting, a process called flow cytometry is used.
Flow cytometry uses the fluorescence and light scatter properties of cells to rapidly differentiate between them. Single cells are suspended in a fluid and passed one at a time through a flow chamber where they are channeled through the focus of a high intensity light source. Surrounding the focus area is a light collection system, which measures precisely how the light is absorbed, distorted, or reflected. Cell volume and electrical impedance is subsequently measured. Based on this analysis, the cells are then sorted. The stream in which the sample lies is then oscillated, and formed into uniform drops.
These drops are then compared with the analysis data and when the drops match the desired range of the analysis data they are given an electrical charge. The drops are then passed through a uniform electric field which deflects the charged drops, sorting the two groups. Flow cytometry can process sperm at up to ten thousand a second, resulting in no significant time difference compared with a centrifuge process. Flow cytometry also provides both better accuracy, and measurable accuracy. The accuracy of the sperm sort is tested by fluorescence in situ hybridization (FISH).
A FISH test involves taking a sample of the sorted sperm and then exposing them to a special DNA probe that attaches to either the X or Y chromosome causing them to emit a specific color. The X and Y sperm in the sample are then counted, and their relative numbers gives the purity of the sample to a high degree of accuracy. Results of a FISH Analysis The use of flow cytometry for sperm sorting was developed and is currently operated by the Genetics & IVF Institute in Fairfax, Virginia. They report over 358 babies have been born using MicroSort (the product name for their flow cytometry process).
Currently, Y carrying sperm can be separated with a success rate of seventy-three percent (meaning seventy-three percent of the sperm in the Y sorted group carry a Y chromosome). X carrying sperm can be separated with a success rate of eighty-eight percent. Sperm sorting has resulted in a seventy-six percent success rate when trying for a male baby, and a ninety-one percent success rate when trying for a girl. Sperm sorting is entirely legal. Most laws governing the use and treatment of sperm samples are focused on the regulation of frozen samples.
Most forms of artificial insemination involve freezing the sperm at some point during the process, so laws relating to frozen sperm cover most processes. Sorting can be done before the samples are ever frozen (and cannot be done while the sperm is frozen), thus exempting sorting from those regulations. However, there is currently a movement in the United Kingdom to ban sperm sorting as it has recently come into the national spotlight in that country. Sorting is important, because issues such as gender predetermination affect us all. Ethically, sperm sorting presents a number of issues, and should be addressed.
There are three possible ways to deal with it, which I will be examining from a number of different ethical perspectives. One option would be to ban sperm sorting in all cases. Another option would be to allow sperm sorting on a limited basis (and if so, by what standard would we evaluate when to allow and when to disallow the process). A third option is to allow sperm sorting. Utilitarianism is based upon creating the most good while producing the least amount of harm. In my opinion, from a utilitarian viewpoint, completely banning sperm sorting is unacceptable.
By completely banning sorting, we do not create a better situation than we would have without sperm sorting and we produce the possibility of harm. Consider that if a couple is planning on having a child, but the father has a Y chromosome carried genetic disorder (such as Duchene muscular dystrophy). Sperm sorting is a safe way for them to greatly increase their chances of having a child free of the disorder. Such an example would seem to imply that at least limited use of sperm sorting on the basis of genetic disorder prevention should be allowed.
I do not think that completely allowing sperm sorting is justifiable by utilitarianism. The good that is produced by preventing genetic disorders in a small number of very specialized cases is far outweighed by the possible harms that it could bring upon society. Some foreseeable problems include the chance that the parents do not receive the gender of child they wanted (and paid for). It could potentially result in the abortion of that baby, or a maltreatment of the child during its formative years. Utilitarian verdict: Allow sperm sorting in cases where genetic disorders are involved.
A rights perspective focuses on the rights of individuals. This perspective too seems to eliminate the possibility of banning all sperm sorting, as it would be a violation of the rights of the unborn child to be healthy and free of genetic disorder. It would also violate the rights of parents to have the possibility of having a healthy child. Limiting sorting to cases where genetic defects are involved seems the best option from a justice perspective, as it respects the rights of all individuals. The only question remaining is if people have a right to the ability to choose the gender of their child.
If they did, that would suggest we should allow sorting in all cases. However, I do not think that gender selection is a moral right because there is no inherent need to choose the gender of your baby, nor does it improve the life of the parents in any way. Rights verdict: Allow sperm sorting in cases where genetic disorders are involved. A fairness perspective focuses on the equal distribution of benefits and burdens among all people. Completely banning sperm sorting would result in a continuation of the status quo in regards to gender selection (nobody can choose).
Fairness seems to allow for limited use, as it would help even the distribution of burdens away from those parents who currently have children with genetic disorders that could be largely prevented through sorting. In small settings, it would seem that the fairness argument would also allow the use of sorting in all cases. For situations such as family balancing (having an equal distribution of male and female children) it would seem to enhance the fairness: giving all people the chance to have the same family balance. However, further consideration must be focused on the fact that sperm sorting is expensive.
Those who could not afford sperm sorting could be placed at a financial disadvantage. In countries where women command a dowry to be married for instance, those who could afford sperm sorting to ensure they had all girls, thus increasing their family wealth. Conversely, they could also ensure they had a son to inherit the family land and carry on the family name. Fairness verdict: Due to the inherently unequal distribution of wealth, completely banning sperm sorting would most equally distribute benefits and burdens on society. A common good perspective judges issues on what best advances the good of all people.
An important issue that must be addressed when considering the common good is how sperm sorting will affect population distribution in the world. Currently the world has a slightly more female population (fifty-one percent of the world’s population is female). Given the choice of male or female, would that change? Considering the heavy bias already shown in countries such as China, where female babies are killed or given up for adoption, it is likely that widespread sperm sorting could have a significant impact on the female to male ratio in population.
Evolution tells us the results of this would not bode well for our species. As the number of one gender declines drastically, the DNA of the remaining members of that gender will be replicated more frequently, making it more likely to express any negative traits in that DNA, and also decreasing the overall variance in genetic combinations, reducing the ability of our species to evolve to a constantly planet on which we live. Thus, allowing sperm sorting in all cases does not serve the common good. However, eliminating chromosome carried genetic disorders where possible, does enhance the common good, and should be allowed.
Common good verdict: Allow sperm sorting in cases where genetic disorders are involved. A virtue perspective would address what decision we could make that would best develop positive moral virtues. The most key issue from this perspective is how choosing gender would affect our views as a society of both genders. If a societal preference develops for one gender over another, is that developing good moral virtues? Gender preference is a form of discrimination, and therefore not a virtue we should develop in society. This eliminates allowing all sperm sorting, as it presents a risk of establishing a societal trend that is not virtuous.
Due to the beneficial outcomes that sperm sorting can produce though, it would also seem hasty to ban all sperm sorting. Preventing debilitating genetic disease and giving all members of society the best possible chance to succeed would be the virtuous thing to do. Virtue verdict: Allow sperm sorting in cases where genetic disorders are involved. Kant’s Categorical Imperative tells us that we should act in a manner that we would wish to become law for everyone. This is the key part of the issue, how would we will that others act?
The categorical imperative seems to have to little to say on this issue. If we would like to choose the gender of our children, and find it acceptable for everyone to be given the same privilege, it should be acceptable. Based upon the over 300 live births that have already been accomplished using sperm sorting, the overwhelming use of IVF and IUI in our society, and the even more common decision to find out the gender of your child before birth using ultrasound, I conclude that given the option most people would choose sperm sorting, and be content for that to be the rule for everyone.
This certainly would eliminate completely banning sperm sorting. I would also conclude that if the decision is left to be made by each person, choosing what they would have all people do, it would be equivalent to allowing sperm sorting in all cases. Categorical Imperative verdict: Allow sperm sorting in all cases. If we applied a moral math to this situation, the decision would be clear. Four ethical perspectives for limited use, compared with just one in favor of a complete ban or unlimited use.
Unfortunately, morality cannot be calculated, and ethical decisions require more thought than that. That I fear is the true problem with the issue of sperm sorting. It appears to be harmless at face value, to even have tremendous beneficial potential. It does not present scary issues like eugenics; it won’t be featured in any science fiction movies. Sperm sorting could easily slip into society without any warning, without any debate, as just a minor advancement of finding out the gender of your baby before it is born. If you think it isn’t possible, consider that it is already happening.
Three hundred babies have already been born using sperm sorting, with only minor consideration for the issues I’ve raised in this paper. In my opinion, this technique is too simple, and relatively effective, to completely ban. At the very least, it should be used to prevent gender chromosome linked disorders. For procedures of that type, I think it should be made available to as many people as possible. People deserve the best chance to have a healthy child. However, the social problems that can be created by the technology are too great in my opinion.
Yes, it greatly increases the chances of parents having the gender of child they desire. What about in the ten to twenty-five percent of cases where they don’t? If the parents choose to abort the child, that raises even more issues on the rights of the child, and abortion is never a simple decision. If the parents decide to keep the child, will it affect the way they treat it? I can only imagine the emotional stress it would put on a person to find out that their parents wanted so desperately to have a child of the opposite gender that they paid a significant amount of money to achieve it.
In addition, were one gender to become exceedingly more popular than another, it would reduce diversity in the genetic pool, increasing the rate of recessively expressed diseases and reducing the ability of our species to evolve to a changing environment. Considering all the factors and possible outcomes, I would choose to allow, and encourage, the use of sperm sorting in cases where it can be used to prevent a genetic defect. In all other cases, I believe it should not be allowed.