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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Edgar Dahl questions the received wisdom on sex selection

In The Journal of Evolution and Technology, Edgar Dahl challenges the usual panic wisdom about sex-selection technology. Dahl's "Gendercide? A Commentary on The Economist's Report About the Wordwide War on Baby Girls" makes a series of points that suggest the issue of gender ratios in the developing world has been blown out of proportion and that a more liberal approach could be adopted to the problem than has been seen in, for example, India. Dahl's final point questions the extent of cultural preference for boys in such countries:

Seventh, and finally, technology might not be the problem but the solution to high sex ratios and sex discrimination. As pointed out in the article, the sex ratios of first born children in China are “within the bounds of normality.” The same applies to India. It is only the sex ratio for the second, third or fourth child that is severely distorted. This means that first-born daughters are not discriminated against. Or, as Monica Das Gupta put it: they are “treated the same as their brothers.” Consequently, the article goes on to say: “The rule seems to be that parents will joyfully embrace a daughter as their first child. But they will go to extraordinary lengths to ensure that subsequent children are sons.” Given that Indian and Chinese parents have strong religious and economic incentives for having boys, their preferences are entirely rational.

What to do? Dahl suggests that sex-selection technology should not be entirely banned, but should, rather, be legal for couples who already have at least one daughter. This involves some intervention by the state to reduce the scale of the problem but imposes only a minimal restriction of the parents' freedom. They cannot use the technology for a first child, or for the second child if the first child is a son. But a family with one or more girls can thereafter use the technology if they so wish.

Perhaps there are other approaches, and JET welcomes good articles on topics such as this. Leaving aside the situation in Asia, I must say that I find bans on sex selection technology in developed countries incomprehensible. The research to date suggests no reason to think this technology would lead to a skewing of sex ratios in, say, Australia. On that basis, it seems apparent to me that the wishes of parents should prevail.


Chris Lawson said...


I don't have any figures (and I don't know if they have been collected), but my feeling is that in Western countries sex selection technology will mostly be used by high-risk couples to avoid sex-linked genetic diseases in their children. Since most of these conditions are X-linked, the bias will lean towards towards girls instead of boys.

March Hare said...

This is scarily close to the allocation of genders for particular families.

It is also a problem that will solve itself. Over generations certain genders will be relatively scarce and so increase in value to parents ad they will have a preference for that gender.

O a more ideological level the state should not be i the business of telling people what they can and can't do in most circumstances but certainly not with their own bodies. Reproductive rights for women, along with female emancipation, education and equality, are the best way to reduce the population growth in the developing world and make parents more likely to be satisfied with whatever gender their child happens to be.

Russell Blackford said...

Chris, I believe it's actually legal in Australian jurisdictions to use sex-selection for that purpose. There's some data around, I understand, that suggests people are not likely to use sex-selection for other purposes in Western countries unless they have, say, a string of boys and would really like to make sure they have a girl as well. But I can't provide a link or a reference.

Svlad Cjelli said...

Because forcing parents who actually hate little girls to have daughters sounded like such a good idea.
Now that we discover that they can accept daughters, it's no longer as tempting.

ColinGavaghan said...

I'm sure I've read more recent evidence, but the one I can remember is a 2003 survey, published in Human Reproduction, had 21% of the UK population expressing an interest in PGD for sex selection. But since 68% of that 21% were interested in 'family balancing', i.e. having an equal number of girls and boys, I don't think it provides much basis for concern about demographic distortion. (Human Reproduction (2003); 18(10):2238-9)