- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 23, 2003

This is the first in a series of editorials on the challenges raised by the October report of the President’s Council on Bioethics.

Some technologies seem to sneak up on the public. Their application becomes the norm before any thought has been given to their implications. That seems to be the case with sex selection, according to the recently released report from the President’s Council on Bioethics, “Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

Sex selection is simply choosing a child based upon its sex. It can be done through several different techniques: amniocentesis or sonogram screening followed by abortion; preimplantation genetic diagnosis followed by transfer of embroys of the selected sex; and pre-fertilization separation of sperm of the desired sex followed by fertilization and implantation. While some of those techniques were originally developed to screen for diseases, they are now being put to non-therapeutic purposes.

While the oldest of those techniques have only been available since the 1970s, their application is already having a significant societal impact. On average, Mother Nature provides for 105 boys to be born for every 100 girls. However, with those human interventions, that ratio has become skewed in some societies, particularly those in the developing world. The ratio is 108.7 to 100 in Egypt, it is 110.9 in Pakistan and it is 117 to 100 in China. Some nations in the Caucasus region have seen ratios as high as 120 to 100. Such effects have not yet been seen in the United States, but they have appeared in other Western nations.

Those dramatic demographic shifts are striking for two reasons. In the first place, it is widely assumed that biotechnologies will first be utilized only in countries rich enough to afford them. Yet that is clearly not the case with sex-selection techniques, and it might not be the case with other nascent technologies. After all, sufficient numbers of people in purportedly poor countries have found the resources to spend on sex selection to significantly skew male/female ratios. Moreover, marriage is rightly seen as a civilizing force, and large numbers of single young adult males with few prospects of finding a mate could be a potent force for social disruption, particularly if coupled with a global economic downturn.

It is also possible that those changes could have positive effects, forcing men to be better behaved so that they can attract potential mates. However, the point of the council’s report is that decisions on sex selection are being made practically without public debate. As it noted, “Although the practice of sex selection continues to grow, the American public debate over sex selection has never been aired in full.” Meanwhile, radio advertisements for sex-selection technologies are airing around the Beltway.

The nation could use a healthy debate on the ethics and potential implications of sex-selection and its associated technologies. Americans can start it by clickingintothecouncil’sreport, www.bioethics.gov.

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