Sex selection is a controversial technology that allows people to select their biological children based on their sex. While NHMRC guidelines recommend against sex selection for non-medical reasons, these guidelines are currently under review, making a debate about this issue even more timely. (Throughout this article I shall use ‘sex selection’ to refer to sex selection for non-medical reasons.) It has been available for some time now and is possible via three methods:

  1. sex determination of the fetus followed by abortion if it is an undesired sex;
  2. IVF followed by pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, wherein only embryos of the desired sex are transferred to the uterus of the prospective mother; or
  3. sperm sorting/flow cytometry that separates X-bearing sperm from Y- bearing sperm by their slight differences in weight, and uses either the X-enriched or Y-enriched sperm to fertilise the egg.

Many countries in Asia and Eastern Europe have seen a drastic drop in the number of female babies born compared with male babies.1 2 India has laws that prohibit sex selection, but they are not strictly enforced.3 Similarly, while sex selection is illegal in China, the practice is widespread. In certain parts of India the sex ratio is 120 males for every 100 females and in parts of China the ratio is more than 130 males for every 100 females.4 The skewed sex ratios began with the introduction of sex selection technology and have been growing worse in most of these countries ever since.5

This trend has had dire consequences. Countries with a gender imbalance are showing an increase in sexual violence, human trafficking, bride kidnapping and crime, with political unrest as a result.6 7 It is no coincidence that the increase in gang rapes in India coincides with the decrease in the number of females born. Therefore, women in such countries now face multiple pressures to avoid having girls: from their families, with psychological and/or physical abuse if they do not practice sex selection, or their own desire to avoid having a child who will suffer the egregious effects of being born female in a deeply sexist society. (While the sexism in countries such as India is quite extreme, it is worth remembering that no country has yet achieved gender equality.) When stuck between a rock and a hard place, such choices are not truly free. The choice to avoid having a daughter also places the mother in the position of participating in a practice that causes the conditions for women like her to go from bad to worse.

It is easy to see why sex selection in such a context is sexist, but in Western countries there is not a strong son preference. Instead, sex selection in the West is more commonly requested for ‘gender balancing’ (when all current children are of one sex and the parent wishes to have a child of the ‘opposite’ sex).8 9 It is worth remembering in this context that although humans are usually thought of as either male or female, there are a number of babies born intersex, with ‘ambiguous’ genitalia/sex chromosomes. Thus, the binary model of sex does not reflect reality. The problem with sex selection in the West is thus not as obvious as it is in countries that manifest a son preference. Nevertheless, a number of scholars assert that parents who undergo sex selection for gender balancing do so because they are heavily invested in having a child who will conform to the stereotypical traits, norms and behaviours associated with children of the sex they do not have.10 11 12 The evidence bears this out. Studies of parents in the US, the UK and Australia who wish to use sex selection show that those who want a daughter want a child who will conform to the gender roles, norms and stereotypes associated with being female, such as playing with dolls, dressing in pink frilly dresses and going to ballet lessons.13 14 15 They assume she will be heterosexual, get married and have children, without considering that she may be lesbian, a tomboy or may not want children. Many are mothers who want to enjoy talking, shopping and having a close mother-daughter 16 17 – all of which they assume they cannot do with a son. On the other side are parents who wish to have a son in order to enjoy activities such as fishing, sports or to have a child who will pass on the family name 18 19 20 – all of which they assume they cannot have with a daughter.

Yet the evidence available so far does not support these assumptions. Of course, we know that there is nothing essential about being male that causes males to pass on the family name: it is not as though it is inscribed in the Y chromosome. We also know that girls are perfectly capable of playing sport and going fishing, and that boys are capable of talking and playing with dolls. But what is commonly assumed is that girls/women and boys/men are naturally inclined to certain activities and have different aptitudes and abilities.21 22 It appears, however, that this assumption is unfounded. A/Prof Cordelia Fine (a psychologist) and A/Prof Lise Eliot (a neuroscientist), are among the scholars who have critically examined the studies claiming to show that gender differences in psychological characteristics (for example, behaviours, roles and tendencies) are explained by differences in the brain. Their books detail the flaws – ranging from problems with the reasoning on which the studies are based, to methodological flaws and very small studies whose findings are not replicated – that lead them to conclude that despite over a hundred years of searching, we do not have evidence to support the claim that psychological gender differences are directly caused by differences in male and female brains.23 24 This is not to say that it is not possible for evidence of neurological causes of gender differences to emerge in the future. Scientists may yet devise an experiment that could somehow separate the effects of nature from nurture, yet short of raising babies in a vacuum, it would likely be hard to accomplish. This means, according to the evidence we currently have (or lack thereof), the assumptions that underlie parents’ reasons for undergoing sex selection are not based on fact.

This is where the problem with sex selection and the struggle for gender equality intersect – both are based on an assumption that boys/men and girls/women are naturally good at, or inclined to, different things. For instance, the assumptions that women should bear the lion’s share of housework and caring responsibilities because they are more nurturing by nature and that it makes sense for industries such as finance and engineering to be male dominated because they are more mathematically inclined by nature are both unfounded. Yet they are the sorts of beliefs that underlie sexism. Studies that show how males and females are conditioned to behave in certain ways and view their abilities in certain ways have been replicated time and again in different contexts 25 26 27 28 29 30, whereas the studies that claim to show that these behaviours and abilities are biologically hard-wired or at least precede socialisation have not been replicated. Yet the latter belief is what keeps men and women ‘in their places’ and sexism entrenched. It is clear, then, that if we should not hold such beliefs about adults, we should not hold such beliefs about children either. Since the drive for sex selection is premised on sexist beliefs regardless of the selection made, it undermines our fight for gender equality.