Emily Murtagh: Choosing baby’s sex is a wider debate

Chrissy Teigen and John Legend have chosen to have a girl. Picture: Getty Images
Chrissy Teigen and John Legend have chosen to have a girl. Picture: Getty Images
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RATHER than focusing on one couple’s decision, it would be better to examine the overall ethics, says Emily Murtagh

The internet was abuzz a few weeks back with the story of American singer, John Legend, and his wife, model Chrissy Teigen. After years of difficulty conceiving, they are finally having a baby using in vitro fertilisation (lVF – where the egg and sperm are combined outside the body).

Millions of babies are born each year by lVF, so what was so different about their pregnancy? The difference was that they chose to select the gender of their child and they decided to have a girl.

When John and Chrissy underwent IVF, a number of embryos were created, then using a special technique, the embryos’ gender was tested with only a female embryo being selected for implantation.

In this process, the other embryos created are either frozen for later use, as is John and Chrissy’s intention, or discarded. Chrissy shared this in an interview and a rather heated discussion on Twitter ensued on the ethics of sex selection.

Chrissy spoke of her desire to have a daughter first, which was based, primarily, on her perception of the future relationship between her husband and her daughter-to-be. “Let’s put in the girl.’ I think I was most excited and allured by the fact that John would be the best father to a little girl. That excited me; the thought of seeing him with a little girl. I think he deserves that bond. But John definitely is very lucky to have a little girl.”

It seems safe to say that these kinds of secret hopes are held in various forms by most prospective parents. These desires arise out of a certain perception of what a particular gender brings to a family dynamic. But by paying to achieve this there is an emotional and financial investment, not just in having a child, but having a certain type of child.

We have taken leaps and bounds towards gender equality, but sex selection may seek to highlight distinctions and plays into cultural and social notions of what it means to be a male or female child. It may also place unfair, unspoken expectations on the child to adhere to those ideas, given the lengths that the parents have gone to select him or her.

Following from Chrissy’s quotes, what does it mean to choose a child, and to choose a particular child? The language of this becomes an issue as it is a parent-focused rather than a child-focused statement. Parental desire or preference is the immediate motivation. On a deeper level, the parent-child relationship is held as the ultimate example of unconditional acceptance between humans. Thus, it can be asked whether allowing this level of choice goes against this value? lf you are making a choice between two supposedly equal things, can you really say that they remain equal in this process?

When a couple makes a choice such as this, it represents a trend, a social idea of ‘good’. ln isolation it feels relatively harmless that they have decided to have a girl rather than a boy, but what if Chrissy had said that she wanted a family of five boys because she thought they would have an easier life than girls or if they felt like they should just have girls, as an act of rebellion against the patriarchal society that has historically put girls in second place? When does their desire become a problem?

Our culture is essentially an individualistic one, and it would appear that there is a need to recognise how the sum total of many small individual decisions and desires shapes a society and its values.

This is an issue that is observable in other cultures where sex ratios have become as warped as having 120 males to every 100 females. While gender selective abortions are not just illegal but abhorred in most cultures, this does not stop them from being a common reality. ln lndia alone, ten million girls have disappeared before they were born, or just after, within the past twenty years. This speaks volumes on the value that is placed on the female child in these contexts. Choice is a powerful thing. Berating Chrissy and John for making the choice, when it was presented to them, seems a little unhelpful. Genuinely examining the clinics that provide this choice, the legislation that permits it, and a culture that does not holistically question it seems a more useful endeavour.

• Emily Murtagh, Research Associate, Scottish Council on Human Bioethics