Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It was for these inalienable rights that the American colonists declared their independence. It is also for these rights that millions have traveled to our shores looking for opportunity and a better life.
There is another right, not enumerated in our Constitution, that Americans regrettably hold dear enough that it often trumps all the others. Foreigners are traveling to the U.S. to exercise this right as well. That right is the “reproductive right.”
Decades ago, when abortion on demand became the law of our land, reproductive rights meant that a woman could terminate her unborn child for any reason. Today, the meaning of reproductive rights has expanded to include creating children any way one sees fit and tossing out any offspring who do not fulfill one’s desires.
Our warped understanding of reproductive rights means that, in most states, sex selection is perfectly legal. If an American wants a child of a certain sex, then many believe that is his or her “reproductive right.”
Our lax attitude toward sex selection is not shared around the world. Many countries, like Australia, Canada, France, Germany, South Korea and the United Kingdom, to name just a few, have restrictions on sex selection. Even in China and India, sex selection is illegal, although it still remains a problem in those countries. These societies have acknowledged that choosing who gets to live based simply on gender is an unethical practice they will not sanction.
As a result, the United States has become a safe haven for sex selection. Whether through sex-selective abortion or through in vitro fertilization (IVF) with preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), immigrants and foreigners with gender bias are taking advantage of our lack of restrictions.
In 2008, Douglas Almond and Lena Edlund of the University of California-Berkeley published a study that looked at the 2000 U.S. Census data. They found that, among U.S.-born children of Chinese, Korean and Asian-Indian parents, there is a male bias, especially in third children. Almond and Edlund report, “If there was no previous son, sons outnumbered daughters by 50%.” They concluded this data “to be evidence of sex selection, most likely at the prenatal stage.”
In 2011, Forbes reported on two abortion businesses located in areas with high Asian-immigrant populations that allowed researchers to interview their patients. What researchers found was shocking: Of the women surveyed, 89% of those carrying girls aborted them. Half of those women said they had aborted girls before.
Even more troubling are the reports by these women that they were being coerced into sex-selective abortion. Threats of divorce, violence and even murder were reported if the women did not bear sons.
In an effort to protect babies and their mothers from gender bias, the Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act, called PRENDA for short, was introduced to Congress in 2012. PRENDA would have punished medical providers who performed abortions or accepted funds for abortions when the reason for the abortion was the sex of the fetus.
PRENDA faced fierce opposition from pro-abortion groups, mainly because it set restrictions on “reproductive rights.” Evidence of sex selection occurring in the United States was summarily dismissed, and PRENDA was painted as a ploy to limit general access to abortion. One writer at Jezebel, a blog for women, called sex selection in the U.S. “a problem rampant only in its rampant nonexistence.” Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, called PRENDA a “trumped-up bill for a trumped-up problem.” PRENDA did not receive the necessary votes in the House to pass.
Abortion is not the only way sex selection is achieved. Fertility clinics, using IVF and PGD, can virtually ensure that otherwise fertile couples can have the boy or girl they have always wanted. On the surface, it sounds like the clinic simply makes embryos of the desired gender. In reality, this process involves producing a batch of embryos of both sexes. A single cell is taken from each embryo and tested to see which embryos are boys and which are girls.
The embryos that win the “genetic lottery” get a chance at finishing their lives. The ones of the unwanted sex are discarded, placed in the deep freeze or donated to research.
IVF clinics in the United States are offering their sex-selection services to couples from countries where such procedures are illegal. The Washington Center for Reproductive Medicine near Seattle recently caused a stir by placing an advertisement for its sex-selection services in the Canadian newspaper Indo-Canadian Voice, which delivers South-Asian news to British Columbia. The ad followed the publication of a study in the Canadian Medical Association Journal that revealed an increased ratio of male-to-female children in some Asian populations. In a statement about the sex-selection ad, Canada’s minister for the status of women, Rona Ambrose, reminded publishers that sex selection is illegal in Canada. She added, “I find it deplorable that this clinic would be targeting the Indo-Canadian community in British Columbia. What they’re doing is perpetuating a cultural norm that is discriminatory against girls and women.”
Jeffery Steinberg, a New York IVF doctor, welcomes couples from all over the world looking to pay tens of thousands of dollars to have the kind of child they want. His clinic even staffs multilingual nurses and has partnered with a travel agency to work out flights and hotels so that rich couples from the United Kingdom, China and India can come to New York for sex-selective IVF. Steinberg admits that 98% of his Chinese clients and 97% of his Indian clients want boys. Steinberg told ABC News, “Of course, any pregnancy is a huge, happy thing. But some women out there are just obsessed with getting what they’re after.”
In a recent essay titled “I Paid $50,000 to Have a Girl,” Australian mother Jayne Cornwall describes how she and her husband traveled to California to have a girl after having three sons. Cornwall said she suffered from severe depression, caused by what she calls “gender disappointment.” At the end of her story, Cornwall urged a change in Australia’s laws against sex selection, arguing, “It’s not about playing God; it’s about giving women reproductive freedom.”
When parents pay such exorbitant amounts for the kind of child they desire, there is the tendency to see the child as an object, not a person. A 2012 Slate article titled “How to Buy a Daughter” tells the story of Megan Simpson, a Canadian woman who also traveled to California to choose the sex of her next child. In total, she spent $40,000 to have a girl. Simpson spoke of her daughter as if she were any other major life purchase: “She was worth every cent. Better than a new car or a kitchen reno[vation].”
This is where our twisted idea of “reproductive rights” has led us as a culture. We have abandoned the notion that children are gifts to be cherished, no matter their genetic makeup. Children are now expensive accessories to complete the “perfect” family, and they can be discarded if they are not the desired sex. Somehow, this is part of our “rights” as modern parents.
It is time for the United States to join the rest of the civilized world and ban the practice of sex selection altogether. We need to put an end to this $100-million industry, where not just Americans, but immigrants and foreigners, are free to engage in this barbaric practice.
Rebecca Taylor is a clinical laboratory specialist in molecular biology.
She writes about bioethics at her blog, Mary Meets Dolly.