Embryonic gender selection -- going strong and for sale in the U.S.A.
June 14, 2006 7:31 PM   Subscribe

$20,000 and you can choose the gender of your next kid. You'd think you'd have to go to the Caribbean or someplace to do it but the practice of gender selective preimplantation genetic diagnosis is alive and well in the United States. (Note how the medical link DOES NOT have an indication for using the procedure for gender selection). Some have already been concerned about a slippery slope. And, it seems regulatory agencies would rather not say anything about the issue so as to let the technology improve and see what we can and can't select in our embryos. Could this be the next big issue in the culture v. science v. religion wars?
posted by skepticallypleased (54 comments total)

 
I can't see how the Republicans who make a big deal about stuff like stem cells and Terri Schiavo are not already on this issue. I mean, legally selecting embryos for gender for sale in the United States -- the same place where South Dakota and New Orleans are about to essentially outlaw abortion and the exucitive, lawmaking, and judicial branches of government would do the same if not for 40+ Democratic Senators? At the least, I see this issue as replacing flag burning and homosexual monogamy under the sanctity of marriage (modified stealing of Simpsons joke) as the next big conservative movement issue.

Also, the price of this practice will only fall. That and the implications it has for population demographics are fascinating issues as well.
posted by skepticallypleased at 7:36 PM on June 14, 2006


Korea has a significant problem on their hands in the gender imbalance amongst elementary and middle school students these days. Thanks to the traditional preference for male first children (and with the country having the lowest birth rate in the world now, only children these days), and the wider availability of medical technology -- ultrasound in particular -- it started to become distressingly common (but still 'secret') for female fetuses to be aborted in the 90's. So much so that it was made illegal for doctors to reveal the gender of the fetus to their patients.

Thanks also to the still-strong if slowly-eroding taboo against marrying foreigners (and the rarity of Korean men taking foreign wives, for many reasons, except in the countryside, where no modern Korean woman wants to live, and so women are literally being imported from South East Asia for the purpose), it's going to be an interesting situation in 10 to 20 years time, with a huge number of male marriage-age Korean men without suitable Korean brides. And being openly gay, at least in Korea today, is just not a viable option, although things may well change in the coming years.

I (only slightly tongue-in-cheek) believe that if reunification has not occurred by then, this will be the driver that will make it happen. Not politics or war, but sex.

The situation is China is of course much more dire, and apparently getting worse.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 7:47 PM on June 14, 2006


Choosing before conception is better than the other option: China has a m/f ratio problem.
posted by tomplus2 at 7:51 PM on June 14, 2006


Genetic pre-screening is, in itself, a good thing.
If I could somehow make sure that my offspring won't inherit my myopia and bad back, and my partner's increased risk of breast cancer, I'd gladly pay $20,000 or more.

Once reliable genetic indicators of alcoholism, mental illness and a violent nature are found, we can finally be the masters of our own evolution instead of slaves to it.

But I agree with the gender inbalance problems stavrosthewonderchicken and tomplus2 point out.

Maybe getting it out in the open (as opposed to what's happening in Korea and China) will help solve the problem:
Parents that know that last year 80% of babies were male will know that if they want to have grandchildren they better opt for a female child, and so on.

If that doesn't work, we might finally have found a palatable technological solution to overpopulation.
posted by spazzm at 8:10 PM on June 14, 2006


While PGD is the most effective way to gender select, another method gaining popularity is a sperm sorting method, which selects male or female sperm. While the success rates are lower, this at least removes the issue of when life begins - this method is used pre-conception.

PGD is mostly used to detect genetic problems before transferring embryos during IVF, though it would seem that many clinics are now offering this service to anyone.

The people who use PGD are, for the most part, concerned with issues such as chromosomal disorders, x-linked diseases (microsort can be used for this as well), and to avoid recurrent miscarriage due to the above. When women are low responders (meaning they don't produce many eggs) and have few embryos to use for IVF, PGD is not a procedure used lightly, as it can render an embryo useless for transfer.

No one who enters into IVF does so easily or without thought. PGD, even less so.

People who choose to go through IVF and use PGD for the sole purpose of gender balancing their families have no idea what people who have dealt with infertility have gone through - it's truly a shame that anyone would choose to go through this without really needing the assistance to become pregnant.
posted by OhPuhLeez at 8:16 PM on June 14, 2006


And we all know what Eugenics leads to:
KHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAN!
posted by Citizen Premier at 8:21 PM on June 14, 2006


I suspect the reason agrarian warrior societies have a preference for male children is that males die due to misadventure and combat much more often than females die due to childbirth. Over time, it would even out.

Compare this to an information society in which most manual work is automated, any manual work that isn't automated is cotton-wooled in safety regulations, and battle is marginalized into extremely safe contact sports and extremely low-participation, again safety-obsessed, wars overseas in which the vast majority of "soldiers" are at no serious risk of personal injury at any given time.

Males are trouble - we commit something like 90% of violent crime. Males are more annoying, frankly - we're argumentative, noisy, and far more likely to be offensive. Males are more selfish, meaning we waste more resources accumulating far above our needs at each other's expense, and are less empathetic, meaning we waste more resources competing with each other. We are physically larger on the average, meaning it costs more to keep us fed and housed and clothed, which has got to add up to a lot over several billion individuals. It seems to me that we, meaning the latter group of societies, could be aiming for perhaps a 3:2 or 3:1 ratio of females to males, and if we did, we'd be much happier in the long run. Assuming the other societies that didn't do sex selection didn't interfere, which is a large and unwarranted assumption. :)
posted by aeschenkarnos at 8:49 PM on June 14, 2006


It seems to me that we, meaning the latter group of societies, could be aiming for perhaps a 3:2 or 3:1 ratio of females to males, and if we did, we'd be much happier in the long run.

Men, yes. Women (at least hetero ones), not so much, maybe.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 8:59 PM on June 14, 2006


Two of the factors that made 'eugenics' a dirty word are:
1. Force. Forced sterilisation of 'unwanted' people.
2. Arbitrariness. The eugenics of yore was more a tool for social and economic oppression and control than a scientific tool for increasing the frequency of favourable genes in the population. What sort of eccesses this lead to should be familiar to anyone with even the most basic knowledge of history.
3. Public, not private. Eugenics was enforced as a public policy, through laws. Not as as private choices concerning one's own offspring.

To equate this 'eugenics' - and the powerful associations it awakes in our minds - with PGD is a gross injustice to a technology that is largely beneficial.
After all, when each couple is free to decide the genetic makeup of their offspring, are they not only extending that process that they started when choosing one partner over another?
posted by spazzm at 9:08 PM on June 14, 2006


Three. Not two.
*slaps forehead*
posted by spazzm at 9:09 PM on June 14, 2006


General "Buck" Turgidson: Doctor, you mentioned the ratio of ten women to each man. Now, wouldn't that necessitate the abandonment of the so-called monogamous sexual relationship, I mean, as far as men were concerned?

Dr. Strangelove: Regrettably, yes. But it is, you know, a sacrifice required for the future of the human race. I hasten to add that since each man will be required to do prodigious... service along these lines, the women will have to be selected for their sexual characteristics which will have to be of a highly stimulating nature.

Ambassador de Sadesky: I must confess, you have an astonishingly good idea there, Doctor.
posted by Mr. Six at 9:11 PM on June 14, 2006


KHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAN!

(Not to be confused with the other Khan.)
posted by homunculus at 10:14 PM on June 14, 2006


Slippery slope? Let's slip man. It's been 4 million years since humans have been on the planet, and we're still human.
posted by philosophistry at 10:38 PM on June 14, 2006


I don't have a strong problem with this - at the situation that it is at right now - if the old-rich "elites" turn themselves into "purebreeds," <meh>. Whatever.

There will turn up some obscure gene that no-one really cared about that propogated and which ended up interfering poorly with one of the selected ones. Whoops, there goes the aristocracy again.

(but of course, the next thing would be transgenic humans so that dubious gene could be wiped out.

Hmm, evolution is selection of the fittest - is there a word for engineering your offspring to the parent's aesthetics/ideals?


Nurture (suck it Nature) represent!
posted by porpoise at 11:01 PM on June 14, 2006


If the sex ratio deviates significantly from 50/50 in a given mate-selection pool (say, a country, bounded by cultural barriers, expense of travel etc.), then a proportion of the new generation (equal to twice the deviation) is condemned to be deprived of the prospect of age-appropriate, monogamous, heterosexual marriage.

This is a gross injustice which should never be allowed to happen. It is repulsive that the preferences of parents, apart from cases of hereditary disease, are even considered as comparable interests. Such preferences are frivolous and selfish in comparison to the importance of whole demographic sectors having realistic prospects or normal life relationships. Anyone who would not be equally happy with a male or female child is unqualified to be a parent.

Accordingly sex selection should be banned, or regulated in such a way that there is one girl selected for every boy selected and vice-versa (again, excepting cases of preventing disease).
posted by jam_pony at 11:22 PM on June 14, 2006


Slippery slope? Let's slip man. It's been 4 million years since humans have been on the planet, and we're still human.

Yeah, but only about 50 since we figured out the structure of DNA. Also H. Erectus evolved into Homo Sapiens only 400,000 years ago, and Homo Sapiens Sapiens (which we call modern humans) is only about 130,000 years old (src)
posted by delmoi at 11:23 PM on June 14, 2006


then a proportion of the new generation is condemned to be deprived of the prospect of age-appropriate, monogamous, heterosexual marriage.

Age appropriate monogamous hetrosexual marriages are the most important thing in the world.


posted by delmoi at 11:26 PM on June 14, 2006


... regulated in such a way that there is one girl selected for every boy selected and vice-versa

Well, someone's a fan of big government. REALLY big government. Stop and think for a second about the kind of monolithic, intrusive totalitarian bureaucracy you'd need to regulate this sort of thing, and the draconian tactics you'd need to actually enforce it. Forced abortions for women found to be carrying an "unauthorized gender"? Stop and think about the institutionalized corruption you'd be generating, as parents simply bribed officials to liscence their choice of child. Way, WAAAAAAAY scarier than the alternative.
posted by slatternus at 11:32 PM on June 14, 2006


This is a gross injustice which should never be allowed to happen.

I hate to poke holes of reality in your wonderful grandstanding, but humans do not have 50/50 birth ratios.
posted by spazzm at 11:35 PM on June 14, 2006


Excuse me for overstating a little - you can have a preference to some degree and still be an OK parent. But I stand by the point about policy. It's not acceptable to just let it happen and they say, oh, maybe we'll have a war and kill off the extra males, or expect them to settle for gay relationships when 95+% are innately hetero. How can China and India be surprised? It's not as if the problem is hard to forsee.

I don't claim that "age appropriate monogamous hetrosexual marriages" are the most important thing in life. (And to clarify, I mention hetero only because that's what's right for 95%; and by "marriage" I mean that kind of relationship regardless of legal formalities.) My point is that it's not right for one person to deprive another of something that is normally a very important part of life for most people. It's the importance for the future adult that matters, and that is not known until the person matures, and the right thing is to preserve the natural possibilities so the individual still has the option to pursue what is important to him/herself.
posted by jam_pony at 11:39 PM on June 14, 2006


The normal ratio is about 51/49 with some fluctuations. If artificial selection pushes it a few percent to either side of what it would otherwise be, then the demographic problems like China and India have already started encountering, ensue.

Grandstanding is trying to manipulate an audience for some ulterior purpose. What I'm digging myself out of here < :) is posting hastily based on strong emotion about some people coercively manipulating other people's lives.
posted by jam_pony at 11:45 PM on June 14, 2006


Previously on Metafilter.
posted by euphorb at 11:49 PM on June 14, 2006


sperm with XX chromosomes are heaver and swim slightly slower.


posted by delmoi at 11:50 PM on June 14, 2006


My point is that it's not right for one person to deprive another of something that is normally a very important part of life for most people.

Such as the right to help their children get a good start in life?
posted by spazzm at 11:53 PM on June 14, 2006


My point is that it's not right for one person to deprive another of something that is normally a very important part of life for most people.

Well, I disagree. I think it is OK for one person to 'deprive' another person of something if not doing so requires squeezing an unwanted baby out of their vagina.
posted by delmoi at 11:53 PM on June 14, 2006


And while I don't think having too many men would be a good idea, throughout human history women have outnumbered men, and men could take multiple wives. I don't think that would be problematic. But the other way around would probably have a lot of practical difficulties.
posted by delmoi at 11:55 PM on June 14, 2006


Now after dropping that bomb I'm going to sleep. Night all.
posted by delmoi at 11:57 PM on June 14, 2006


At birth, there are more males than females.
But at 21, the situation is reversed.
This is due to two things:
1. Women grow up faster.
2. They stay 21 longer.

:)
posted by spazzm at 12:07 AM on June 15, 2006


delmoi, you do recognize that aborting because you don't want to have a baby at all is different from aborting because it's not the sex you're trying for - right?
posted by jam_pony at 12:13 AM on June 15, 2006


it's going to be an interesting situation in 10 to 20 years time, with a huge number of male marriage-age Korean men without suitable Korean brides. And being openly gay, at least in Korea today, is just not a viable option

Heh - what's the connection here - your typical hetero male isn't going to be too upset by the lack of this particular option. No wife - big problem. Can't turn gay - not so much?
posted by scheptech at 12:39 AM on June 15, 2006


delmoi, you do recognize that aborting because you don't want to have a baby at all is different from aborting because it's not the sex you're trying for - right?

When did we start talking abortion? Isn't this about embryonic gender selection?
posted by spazzm at 1:01 AM on June 15, 2006


If certain countries run seriously short of women, I wonder if women's rights there will improve because each woman is more valuable than she would have been and because marriageable women (or at least their parents) have a little more bargaining power. If there's only one eight women for ten men, maybe the two biggest assholes will have to do without, even if they've got money. Also, would a shortage of women make it easier for lower class women to marry up?
posted by pracowity at 1:12 AM on June 15, 2006


> When did we start talking abortion? Isn't this about embryonic gender selection?

It's abortion in India or China, embryonic selection in the new technique, same principle.

> > My point is that it's not right for one person to deprive another of something that is normally a very important part of life for most people.

> Such as the right to help their children get a good start in life?

Parents defending sex selection on the ground that it's better for the kid in a sexist society is like businessmen defending race discrimination on the ground that customers (of the favored race) prefer it. In either case, the proposition is true (it is good for business / child does have an easier time). But the collective effect of the invidious practice is to victimize a class of people. Most of us now recognize the moral fallacy in the case of race.

The right role of government is to (a) force people to do the right thing even if it's against their immediate interests and (b) make it so that people can have more nearly equal chances in life without the harmful practice (address the disease not just the symptom).
posted by jam_pony at 1:22 AM on June 15, 2006


On the gender disparity in Asia, there is a book out (which I actually just got, but haven't read yet), called Bare Branches: The Security Implications of Asia's Surplus Male Population.

I'm glad someone mentioned microsort - it's a less unsavory option than abortion or destroying (or failing to implant) an embryo.

And though I find the whole idea quite distasteful, frankly if people are going to treat a female child as "less than" a male child, isn't it better that they don't have a girl?

You're never going to be able to regulate this. Humans are bigoted pigs, that's never going to change.
posted by beth at 1:50 AM on June 15, 2006


Gattaca, here we come!
posted by antifuse at 1:50 AM on June 15, 2006


It's abortion in India or China, embryonic selection in the new technique, same principle.

No. One is termiation of a begun pregnancy, the other is selection between several available embryos, most of which will never get born in any case.

The right role of government is to (a) force people to do the right thing even if it's against their immediate interests...

That's where we disagree then.
I believe government only has the right to prevent people from deciding what's best for their own family if:
a) It's to protect someone else from harm.
b) It's to protect a common good.

Nobody is at risk from harm, and the threat to the common good is only a (shaky) hypothesis at this point.

Parents defending sex selection on the ground that it's better for the kid in a sexist society...

What if that's not the parents' motive? What if they simply want a girl because they have 3 boys already?
Racism is different because it hurts members of a given race.
Sex selection doesn't hurt anyone, unless you count the embryos.

Also, would a shortage of women make it easier for lower class women to marry up?

I would guess so, but I'm not about to bet on it.
posted by spazzm at 2:05 AM on June 15, 2006


Sex selection doesn't hurt anyone

From the back cover of the book I mentioned above:
...historically, high male-to-female ratios often trigger domestic and international violence...
So yeah, someone might get hurt.

And I don't think it's been mentioned yet but not all places are advanced enough to have even things like abortion to use for sex selection. They merely use infanticide of girls instead. I think that could be classed as hurting someone.

It's all of a piece... sperm sorting, embryo selection, abortion, infanticide. All about people for whom a healthy baby is somehow not enough. And people wonder why I'm disgusted with us as a species.
posted by beth at 3:43 AM on June 15, 2006


"sperm with XX chromosomes are heaver and swim slightly slower"
Sperm only carry a single sex chromosome, but I know what you meant.

I'm personally surprised that the Americans are allowing this in the first place- they have enough trouble with stem cells and abortion issues, I'd have thought something like this would bring up some strong protest from the bible-belters. That said, Bush is hardly going to talk about it around the mid terms with it being legal.
I also think it's a bad idea, but not as bad as people are making out. In the western world, the gender of a child doesn't matter as much since there is greater equality, so perhaps there would be the sort of m/f ratio crisis there is in China. Still, I think there's a subconscious leaning towards males.
posted by D J Robertstein at 4:12 AM on June 15, 2006


Having slightly more females would reduce the aggressivity level of a population. If you want to regulate this without getting totalitarian, you need a real-time gender ratio number and financial incentives based on that. That means, parents who choose a currently needed gender would be rewarded, depending on how skewed the current ratio is.
posted by vertriebskonzept at 4:18 AM on June 15, 2006


I would like to vote for the 3:1 Female:Male ratio. I think that is a fantastic idea.
posted by Bort at 4:36 AM on June 15, 2006


It's all of a piece... sperm sorting, embryo selection, abortion, infanticide... Very droll, lol.

And people wonder why I'm disgusted with us as a species. Actually no one is in the least curious.
posted by econous at 4:52 AM on June 15, 2006


If certain countries run seriously short of women, I wonder if women's rights there will improve because each woman is more valuable than she would have been and because marriageable women (or at least their parents) have a little more bargaining power. If there's only one eight women for ten men, maybe the two biggest assholes will have to do without, even if they've got money. Also, would a shortage of women make it easier for lower class women to marry up?

Are you kidding? Haven't you read any of the articles about the rapes and kidnappings due to young chinese men not being able to find suitable partners? Some of these kidnapped women are already married, some are still children, that's how desperate the situation already is & it's only going to get worse. Lessening our numbers will only lessen our rights & our safety, that's a guarantee.

"China's police have freed more than 42,000 kidnapped women and children from 2001 to 2003." From tomplus2's linked article.

Heh - what's the connection here - your typical hetero male isn't going to be too upset by the lack of this particular option. No wife - big problem. Can't turn gay - not so much?

You're getting hung up on people using terms like marriage & monogamy when the actual problem is NO SEX. I've never met anyone of any sexual preference that was cool with a total lack of sex. Hence the kidnappings & rapes in regions where the male pop unnaturally outweighs the female pop.
posted by zarah at 5:06 AM on June 15, 2006


If certain countries run seriously short of women, I wonder if women's rights there will improve because each woman is more valuable than she would have been and because marriageable women (or at least their parents) have a little more bargaining power

I'm afraid the opposite will happen in countries where the patriarchy runs strong. Women might be seen more as a commodity since they are outnumbered. In conservative countries where men alerady run things, and women start to run short, do you think they'll start to share power? I doubt it. I think the men will try to control the problem. Gender roles will probably become even more rigid because women are needed to be wives and mothers. I would expect more arranged and forced marriages, more pressure to have more children, and less tolerance for women "behaving like men" in ways like having independence or careers.
posted by adzuki at 5:07 AM on June 15, 2006


Female infanticide was part of Chinese and MIddle Eastern cultures for centuries. Neither culture was considered particularly hospitable to women, as far as I know. I'd expect oppression (although I'd expect opression if there were too many females too).
posted by gsteff at 5:28 AM on June 15, 2006


beth: Yes, sex selection will automatically turn the west into asia.
posted by spazzm at 5:56 AM on June 15, 2006


Reminds me a bit of 'The Handmaid's Tale'. The net result would be a change in the natural process of society in favour of an artifical structure. Wrong side of the line for me.
posted by RufusW at 6:47 AM on June 15, 2006


This is a bit off-topic, but is there any proof that China's one-child policy was a good idea? What would have happened if their populations had been allowed to reproduce without government intervention? Would they have massive famines and unemployment, or would things have levelled out eventually? I suspect the latter, only because "population bomb" theories have largely been proved wrong in recent decades.
posted by Afroblanco at 7:57 AM on June 15, 2006


[BBC] The Genius Sperm Bank, this is worth the read. I love Blake the 'poster boy', he makes my eggs tingle. [Turns out twas me kidneys, I just needed a slash, just one of many problems us intersexers have to deal with on a daily basis. Danm you god for my inadequate protuberances.]
posted by econous at 8:17 AM on June 15, 2006


delmoi, you do recognize that aborting because you don't want to have a baby at all is different from aborting because it's not the sex you're trying for - right?

Erm, well today women can abort for sex selection.
posted by delmoi at 8:42 AM on June 15, 2006


While the effect on societies of selective abortion/ selective fertilization on sex ratios in childhood is disturbing, I dont think that the social impact will be serious. Many more men than women are murdered, with a peak victim age of 20-24. Also, everywhere except China,
male:female suicide ratio is >>1. Both of murder and ex-China suicide tend to cause sex ratios in populations older than adolescence to skew female. I've never seen a comparison of either trend with the magnitude of male:female skew introduced by sex selection.
posted by lw at 11:19 AM on June 15, 2006


It's all of a piece... sperm sorting, embryo selection, abortion, infanticide

Yes, that's a reasonable reaction, after all sorting sperm before they enter an egg is comparable to killing babies after birth.

WTF.

All about people for whom a healthy baby is somehow not enough

Of course, let's ignore that a primary use of sperm sorting and embryo selection is to avoid birth defects and the like. Nope, no possible good use for technology here.
posted by wildcrdj at 4:38 PM on June 15, 2006


This is a bit off-topic, but is there any proof that China's one-child policy was a good idea? What would have happened if their populations had been allowed to reproduce without government intervention? Would they have massive famines and unemployment, or would things have levelled out eventually? I suspect the latter, only because "population bomb" theories have largely been proved wrong in recent decades.

One of the linked articles said that there are approximately 300 million less chinese due to the policy. Given China's current massive resource calls, for basically everything (coal, iron ore, arable land, water, energy) and the fact they're now a net food importer, I think it's safe to say they would ahve had problems.

And who says the population bomb theories are way off? Most of them talked about impacts in teh early 21st century. I think tehre's lots of evidence of overpopulation.
posted by wilful at 11:28 PM on June 15, 2006


Of course, let's ignore that a primary use of sperm sorting and embryo selection is to avoid birth defects and the like. Nope, no possible good use for technology here.

Selecting against disease and defect is a different thing than selecting against gender. I thought this post was about selecting against gender... I mean, it's got the phrase "gender selection" in the title.

Babies should be welcome whatever their gender. If a parent is not willing to love a child of either gender (or intersex!), then imho they aren't unconditionally loving enough to be a parent.

But then, I don't get to hand out parenting licenses. I do, however, get to snark and be contemptuous of those whose values I loathe.

All too often, people use children as a means to an end, and that sickens me.
posted by beth at 12:26 AM on June 16, 2006


Selecting against disease and defect is a different thing than selecting against gender.

Who decides?

I am personally against methods that allow for sex selection simply for a preference in gender as opposed to a chromosomal-based disorder.

But who decides what is a defect? I have six embryos, one has the "gay" gene or Downs syndrome or the "deaf" gene..to some, a defect, to others, a perfect child.

Beyond the standard chromosomal disorders, there are aspects of this that truly are subjective, and as we discover the genetic basis of more and more of our "defects," it will become even more and more subjective.
posted by OhPuhLeez at 5:29 AM on June 16, 2006


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