Megan Simpson always expected that she would be a mother to a daughter.
She had grown up in a family of four sisters. She liked sewing, baking, and doing hair and makeup. She hoped one day to share these interests with a little girl whom she could dress in pink.
Simpson, a labor and delivery nurse at a hospital north of Toronto, was surprised when her first child, born in 2002, was a boy. That’s okay, she thought. The next one will be a girl.
Except it wasn’t. Two years later, she gave birth to another boy.
Desperate for a baby girl, Simpson and her husband drove four hours to a fertility clinic in Michigan. Gender selection is illegal in Canada, which is why the couple turned to the United States. They paid $800 for a procedure that sorts sperm based on the assumption that sperm carrying a Y chromosome swim faster in a protein solution than sperm with an X chromosome do.
Simpson was inseminated with the slower sperm that same day. Fifteen weeks later, she asked a colleague at the hospital to sneak in an after-hours ultrasound. The results felt like a brick landing on her stomach: another boy.
“I lay in bed and cried for weeks,” said Simpson, now 36, whose name has been changed to protect her privacy. She took a job in the operating room so she would no longer have to work with women who were giving birth to girls.
Simpson and her husband talked about getting an abortion, but she decided to continue with the pregnancy. In the meantime, she looked for a way to absolutely guarantee that her next child would be the daughter she had always dreamed about. She discovered an online community of women just like her, confiding deep-seated feelings of depression over giving birth to boys. The Web forums mentioned a technique offered in the United States that would guarantee her next baby would be a girl. It would cost tens of thousands of dollars, money Simpson and her husband did not have. Simpson waited until her third son was born. Then she began to make some phone calls.
The conventional wisdom has always been this: Given a choice, couples would prefer sons. That has certainly been the case in places like China and India, where couples have used pregnancy screening to abort female fetuses. But in the United States, a different kind of sex selection is taking place: Mothers like Simpson are using expensive reproductive procedures so they can select girls.
Just over a decade ago, some doctors saw the potential profits that could be made from women like Simpson—an untapped market of young, fertile mothers. These doctors trolled online forums, offering counseling and services. They coined the phrase “family balancing” to make sex selection more palatable. They marketed their clinics by giving away free promotional DVDs and setting up slick websites.
These fertility doctors have turned a procedure originally designed to prevent genetic diseases into a luxury purchase akin to plastic surgery. Gender selection now rakes in revenues of at least $100 million every year. The average cost of a gender selection procedure at high-profile clinics is about $18,000, and an estimated 4,000 to 6,000 procedures are performed every year. Fertility doctors foresee an explosion in sex-selection procedures on the horizon, as couples become accustomed to the idea that they can pay to beget children of the gender they prefer.
Inside a fourth-floor office suite off a palm-tree-lined street in Encino, Calif., in an embryology lab, two men wearing maroon scrubs peer into high-tech microscopes. The men are fertilizing human eggs with sperm samples collected earlier that day. After fertilization and three days of incubation, an embryologist uses a laser to cut a hole through an embryo’s protective membrane and then picks out one of the eight cells. Fluorescent dyes allow the embryologist to see the chromosomes and determine whether the embryo is carrying the larger XX pair of chromosomes or the tinier XY. The remaining seven cells will go on to develop normally if the embryo is chosen and implanted in a client’s uterus.