“It performs a much desired service. We're making people happy.”
That's the way Dr. Jeffrey Steinberg, medical director of Fertility Institutes, justified the practice of embryo sex selection in a September 20 Associated Press article. In other words, as long as people want it, somebody ought to be selling it.
A survey released last week – the first survey of its kind in the United States – found that almost half of American fertility clinics allow parents to select embryos according to sex, and nine percent of embryo screenings resulted in such selection.
China and India are already facing demographic challenges due to decades of sex selection through abortion. Males now outnumber females by significant margins. That practice, which had appeared to be taboo in the West, has now been shown to be fairly common. The abortions take place earlier in the process, and (maybe) there isn't an overwhelming preference for boys over girls, but these are non-essential differences.
One might be tempted to say that this is one more step toward the existence of a “baby market,” by which parents pick and choose which traits they want and don't want in their child, pay the technicians their fee, and go home happy. But it can't accurately be described as “one more step toward” this disturbing outcome – because we're already there.
Fifteen years ago, Pope John Paul II wrote, “There are important human needs which escape [the market's] logic. There are goods which by their very nature cannot and must not be bought or sold” (Centesimus Annus, n. 40).
The rush toward commodification of every human good, far from being forestalled by the pope's words, has continued unabated.
When I was in graduate school a decade ago, there were ads in the college newspaper asking for egg donors. Usually, they specified the type of donor they had in mind: white, good-looking, high IQ.
This July, the British Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority granted a fertility center permission to pay women for the ova they need to conduct research. Previously, researchers were dependent on donated eggs.
These two tidbits demonstrate that the market for women's bodies now has two facets: sex and fertility. It is predictable that the pattern of the latter will follow that of the former. Women with networks of family and friends and other options for financial support will not be selling their fertility to the highest bidder, just as such women are generally not the ones selling their bodies on the streets.
The dignity of men and women is upheld by embedding sexuality within a relationship of love. When that function is instead separated out and a market created for it, opportunities for exploitation expand.
It is sounding increasingly old fashioned, but it used to be the case that babies were conceived by acts of love between their mothers and fathers and were welcomed into the world by their parents with gratitude (or at least, in less ideal circumstances, accepted as their responsibility because the children were, after all, their own flesh and blood).
The idea of child as gift is under increasing stress as alternative and sometimes conflicting notions of child as right, as burden, or as consumer item compete for dominance.
Parents' desire for healthy, beautiful, talented children is perfectly understandable. But that urge is taken too far when children with “less desirable” features are weeded out at the embryonic stage. The implication is that a child is not worthy of love and acceptance unless he or she fits the imagined profile.
The market is a wondrous thing. There is no better instrument for the calibration of human productivity and ingenuity to human needs and wants. But its advantages turn pernicious when it encompasses human goods that should never be reduced to monetary values. The idea of a “baby market” should repulse us. That one already exists should cause us alarm.