Recently the New York Times ran a story on sex selection of children in Asian-American communities. The article outlines some disturbing findings from birth records and census data: Asian-American families are much more likely than others to have a boy rather than a girl if their other children are all female, and demographers are attributing this discrepancy to an increasing number of Asian immigrant parents who are selectively determining the sexes of their children.
The trend was found specifically in Indian, Chinese, and Korean families. Families from those countries might prefer to have boys for a number of reasons: they have patrilineal cultures, in which the male children carry on the family name; raising male children is often seen as a good investment, since they are more likely to find gainful employment; and especially in India, raising female children, for whom parents may eventually have to pay a dowry, can be a financial burden.
There are several ways for couples to ensure the birth of a son. In Asian countries, sex “selection” is most often accomplished by aborting female fetuses, or through female infanticide. In the United States, families are more likely to use pre-implantation methods, such as sperm sorting followed by artificial insemination or in-vitro fertilization, although sex-selective abortions are still performed. Whatever the method used, sex selection is problematic. For one thing, the desire to weed out daughters is misogynistic, and suggests that these parents have some unfortunate ideas about gender roles. For another, the practice of artificially selecting a child’s sex amounts to treating the child as a vessel for the parents’ expectations, rather than as a person in his or her own right.
Artificial sex selection needs to stop, but the question of how to stop it is a difficult one. My position as an advocate for total reproductive freedom is that it is unethical to regulate many of the technologies that are used to predetermine the sexes of infants. In particular, a woman’s right to get an abortion must never be subject to any conditions. That means that we can’t legislate an end to sex selection. If we want to solve the problem, we have to address its cause: the underlying beliefs that give rise to the preference for sons.
That’s a much loftier and tougher goal than outlawing sperm sorting, and it’s not clear how to go about accomplishing it. Certainly the US would benefit from more widespread education on gender issues, for everybody. But would that be enough to change a set of beliefs that many people take as cultural norms? What else can we do to get people — not just Asian-American immigrants, but everyone — to see their daughters and their sons as equals?
If you have any ideas, leave a comment.