ultrasound of a baby girl

Sex selection

Nature sees to it that the number of boys born is more or less the same as the number of girls. Selecting the sex of a baby is allowed for medical reasons, but should everyone be free to choose?

Until recently, parents had to accept what nature provided – though many went to extreme lengths to bias the odds. In 17th-century France, for example, men were advised to remove their right testicle if they wanted a boy.

The ‘natural’ ratio of boys to girls is just over 1 – slightly more boys are born than girls. In some countries and cultures, though, the ratio of males to females is highly distorted, because daughters are seen as less ‘desirable’ and are aborted.

In some parts of the UK doctors will not tell parents the sex of a fetus after an ultrasound scan in case this leads to termination of the pregnancy for social reasons.

In the USA it is already legal to choose the sex of your child. Sex selection can be carried out pre- or post-fertilisation. Pre-fertilisation techniques include sorting sperm into those carrying an X chromosome and those with a Y chromosome. In post-fertilisation selection doctors work out the sex of embryos created by in vitro fertilisation (IVF). So someone with one or more girls could choose to have a boy (or vice versa). This practice is known as ‘family balancing’.

However, in the UK selection is only currently allowed for medical reasons, such as avoiding sex-related disorders like haemophilia, which are known to run in a particular family.

Some commentators argue that sex selection goes against the principle that children are a gift to be loved unconditionally, and not treated as a belonging. Others have said that parents should not have their freedom to choose taken away without evidence that sex selection is harmful.

Lead image:

Rain0975/Flickr CC BY NC ND


Questions for discussion

  • Should parents have the right to choose the sex of their baby? Does it make a difference if it is for medical or social reasons?

Further reading

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Sex and Gender’ in January 2006 and reviewed and updated in October 2014.

Genetics and genomics, Statistics and maths, Ecology and environment, Health, infection and disease
Sex and Gender
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development