A new report from philosophers at Keele University and funded by the Wellcome Trust says that pre-pregnancy sex selection of embryos for social reasons or personal preferences should be legalised in the UK.
The report Eugenics and the Ethics of Selective Reproduction argues that sex selection of this kind is not unethical. Presently sex selection is only permitted for medical reasons; for example, to avoid the birth of a child affected by an inherited sex-linked genetic disorder. It says that social sex selection is not a form of eugenics since it does not attempt to improve the human gene pool, whereas in some senses application of the technique for medical purposes does.
Social preferences for one sex over the other – such as for boys among Indian and Chinese populations – has created significantly skewed proportions of the sexes in these countries, despite legal prohibitions on the practice. However, the report authors say this is no reason to deny the option to the UK population, nor is the potentially sexist attitudes that could also lead to a desire for sex selection, and propose that suitable regulation such as requiring IVF clinics to balance the total number of male and female embryos implanted could minimise any imbalances.
Lead author Professor Stephen Wilkinson commented: “As IVF and other techniques can now fulfil these often strongly felt preferences, it’s important to ask why wishing for a girl or a boy baby might be so wrong that parents must be stopped from attempting to achieve it in the UK”.
The report also examines other key ethical issues such as what eugenics actually is and whether it is practised today; what are the moral objections to using embryo selection to avoid disease and disability in offspring; and whether parents who wish to select an embryo that will have a disability (such as deafness) be allowed to do so.
Comment: These are all significant bioethical issues and it is appropriate to revisit arguments for and against such situations in the context of a specific society such as the UK. As the report authors themselves say: ‘We can all learn a great deal from respectful open-minded ethical debate’. However, their conclusions about the specific scenarios are all fairly contentious.
With respect to sex selection, the suggestions that it should be legalised but with suitable regulation and not necessarily funded by the taxpayer (ie. provided by the NHS) themselves create new moral dilemmas; should sex selection be an option available only to the wealthy? Isn’t this effectively an additional layer of social selection? What if a couple wants a child of a particular sex but the clinic they approach has exhausted its quota for selecting embryos of that sex; is it fair that some couples would have been given the choice and others not? And so on. This report provides fresh food for thought, but not necessarily definitive solutions.