Policing parents to be
December 2, 2003
The article first appeared
The UK Human Fertilisation
and Embryology Authority (HFEA) has adopted the view that
its principal mission should be to police potential parents
of children born as a result of assisted conception.
The HFEA's report Sex Selection:
Options for Regulation, published in November 2003, recommends
a ban on sex selection. The committee clearly believes that
parents who want to select the sex of their baby cannot be
trusted to look after the best interests of their child. As
one father of three boys, who really wants a daughter to 'balance'
his family, told me: 'The HFEA seems to think that I am just
Of course many members of
the public disapprove of sex selection on moral grounds. They
believe that parents' attempts to exercise choice over the
composition of their family are playing God. Others claim
that sex selection will encourage discrimination against girls
because of an alleged preference for boys. Some have suggested
that selection might 'upset the balance between sexes'.
Whilst noting these concerns,
the HFEA concedes that they do not provide a clear-cut case
against selection. If arguments appealing to God's Will were
upheld, then to be consistent the government would have no
choice but to ban IVF, not to mention abortion and most forms
of contraception. The HFEA also recognises that concerns about
upsetting the balance between sexes are based on prejudice
rather than fact. Research shows that British parents who
wish to select the sex of their baby are just as likely to
wish for a girl as a boy.
So why is the HFEA so hostile
toward the idea of allowing parents the right to exercise
control over their family life? The HFEA defends its decision
on the ground that public opinion is overwhelmingly against
sex selection. Yet its approach to public opinion is a selective
one. The HFEA's own poll shows that around 69 per cent of
the respondents were against sex selection for social reasons.
That means that around a third did not oppose parents' ability
to balance their family.
A survey published this year
reported that more than one in five Britons would be prepared
to pay over £1000 to choose their baby's sex. No doubt
the figure would rise significantly in a survey of parents starting
a family. What these surveys show is not a public that is overwhelmingly
morally outraged by sex selection but one that is divided, as
it is on most issues to do with family life and reproduction.
It is difficult to avoid the
conclusion that the HFEA is hiding behind the cloak of public
opinion to promote its newly-developed illiberal agenda. The
HFEA prefers to appeal to the weight of public opinion when
it seeks to regulate parents' right to choose. In 2002, public
opinion was overwhelmingly behind Michelle and Jayson Whitaker,
who wanted a genetically selected baby in order to help treat
their three-year-old child Charlie, who was suffering from
a rare blood disorder. Yet the HFEA did not take very much
notice of public opinion then, and banned the Whitakers from
undertaking a procedure that would have treated Charlie's
The principal reason why the
HFEA opposes selection is because it believes that it knows
better than parents what is in the best interest of their child.
Its report states that 'the most persuasive arguments for access
to sex selection technologies are related to the welfare of
the children and families concerned'. It suggests that children
born this way maybe 'psychologically damaged' by the knowledge
that they were selected for their sex.
Why children so intensely
wanted by their parents would be damaged by the knowledge
that they were desperately wanted has yet to explained by
the HFEA. Even more ludicrous is the HFEA's claim that sex-selected
children would be treated prejudicially since their mothers
and fathers would try to mould them to fulfil parental expectations.
The argument that children should be given space to develop
and not pressured into fulfilling their parents' expectations
has been repeated time and again by the HFEA.
Why should parental expectation
be stigmatised? Parents throughout the ages have had clear
expectations for their children and often did their best ensure
that their children fulfilled them. It is only on Planet HFEA
where parental expectation does not exist. Back on earth,
mothers and fathers rear their children with clear expectation
in mind. Family life always consists of a creative interaction
between the exercise of parental expectation and children's
aspiration. By turning parental expectation into a problem,
the HFEA undermines the very foundation on which a creative
family life can be conducted.
Yes, there are pushy parents
- most of whom do not select the gender of their children.
But do we really want a regulatory body like the HFEA to dictate
which parenting styles are acceptable and which are not?
When the HFEA was founded
in 1990, the intention of parliament was to regulate what
were seen then as controversial, cutting-edge treatments and
experiments using donated sperms and eggs and embryos. It
was given regulatory powers to ensure that couples were not
exploited, that the treatments they received were safe and
that scientists and clinics were held to public account.
The 1990 Act was a relatively
permissive one. It sought to provide opportunities for infertile
couples and women to gain access to IVF despite the reservations
of religious and conservative organisations. The intention behind
the setting up of the HFEA was not to police parents. It did
not seek to exercise jurisdiction over the relationship between
parents and children.
Sadly, in recent years the
HFEA has adopted an illiberal ethos that is deeply suspicious
of parents attempting to exercise the right to choose. Back
in 1990 when illiberal sentiments were expressed about giving
access to IVF to lesbians, single mothers and elderly women,
it was rightly argued that they were no less likely than other
parents to do the right thing. This sentiment has been reversed.
It appears that now the HFEA takes the view that ordinary
parents are just as likely as the traditionally stigmatised
group of mothers to behave irresponsibly towards their children.