Abortion and your right to accurate sex selection.

Science, technology, and life.
Feb. 25 2008 8:48 AM

Sexual Satisfaction

Abortion and your right to accurate sex selection.

A home pregnancy test
A home pregnancy test

How does a taboo begin to die?

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

For an answer, look at Sunday's Los Angeles Times. "Accuracy of gender test kits in question," says the headline. The writer, Karen Kaplan, reports that many women are up in arms over home genetic tests that erred in predicting the sex of their kids. More than 100 women are suing one company. Others are calling for regulation.

Why are these women sex-testing their fetuses? Kaplan begins with a Canadian couple, Rohit and Geeta Jain:

[A]n unexpected pregnancy presented the couple with a dilemma.

She wanted to keep the baby, but Rohit wasn't sure. With two daughters already, the family's finances were a bit strained. Could they really afford a third child?

Geeta countered with another question: What if the baby were a boy?

In traditional Indian culture, sons are prized because they will grow up to manage the family resources and support their parents in old age, even lighting their funeral pyres.

All Geeta had to do was prick a finger and mail a sample of dried blood to the company's laboratory.

Notice how the new transforms the old. What's old is sex selection: choosing whether to abort your fetus based on whether it's a boy or a girl. What's new is the combination of ease, safety, and privacy with which you can now do this deed.

Early Baby Gender Mentor. Click image to expand.
Early Baby Gender Mentor

"In the past," Kaplan notes, "virtually all testing was done in medical laboratories for diagnostic purposes, such as searching for the mutations in the BRCA1 gene that are related to breast cancer." Today, however, prenatal sex tests have come down in price to $300 or less, cheap enough to sell directly to would-be parents. And instead of waiting the "10 to 16 weeks needed for traditional medical tests, such as ultrasound," you can now find out at just five to seven weeks whether you're carrying a boy or a girl. That's early enough to get the most basic surgical abortion or, possibly, a chemical abortion instead.

Kaplan's reporting shows how the abortion option looms behind these tests. The Jains considered abortion but decided against it. Another woman "wanted a girl so badly that she and her husband spent $25,000 on in-vitro fertilization so that doctors could select female embryos to implant in her womb." The woman took a test at 10 weeks to make sure she wasn't carrying a male fetus. A third woman who got a bogus result from her test says "there are women out there who experience really big disappointment. They really want to give their husbands the little boy they want, or a little girl, and they will abort based on these results."

One company tells Kaplan it has sold 3,500 prenatal test kits. How many thousands more have been sold by other companies? How many of those tests have led to abortions? Nobody knows. And that's the point: Because the test is taken at home, nobody but the couple has to know that the subsequent abortion is for sex selection.

But abortion isn't the focus of the article. The focus of the article is that these tests often err. The very idea of elective prenatal sex-testing used to be controversial, especially in light of rampant sex-selective abortion in Asia. Now these tests are being bought, used, and reported just like any other prenatal test. The couples who use them are described just as sympathetically. The problem isn't that they're screening their offspring for sex. The problem is that in doing so they're being thwarted by flawed technology and exaggerated marketing.

If you blame the Times for this loss of dismay, you're missing the larger trend. The article exists because the underlying stigma has already decayed. Scores of women are suing over erroneous sex tests. The Jains are unashamed to tell their story and put their names on it. So are the other women quoted in the article. As technology makes it possible to break the sex-selection taboo privately and inexpensively, the practice spreads, and we get used to it. The question of whether to restrict it becomes, as with other prenatal tests, a mere question of consumer protection.

Eventually, we'll establish rules to ensure the safety and efficacy of fetal sex tests. At that point, we'll declare them adequately regulated. That's how a taboo begins to die.

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