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Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Designer Babies

I have been hearing for a while now about the science behind elective gender selection, so the fact that the process exists is not news to me. Even so, many of the details outlined in this piece shocked me. Apparently, elective gender selection is becoming more and more popular in the New York area, due to clinics that offer the procedure on their menu of services. The procedure, which was originally developed to lessen the chances of parents who were carriers of certain chromosome-linked genetic disorders passing those disorders on to their children. I personally know a couple who have made use of the technology to prevent becoming pregnant with boys, to whom they would have a high chance of transmitting the always fatal x-chromosome-linked disease of Tay-Sachs, due to birth parents' positive positive carrier status. So obviously, this technology can be a huge blessing to families such as those, who (at last count) are B"H the proud parents of three beautiful girls.

But - this article is describing something far different. It outlines the increasing trend towards elective gender selection - performing these pricey procedures simply because parents-to-be desire a child of one gender or another (according to the article, usually girls), and don't like the 50-50 odds that doing things naturally present them:
These women want girls for pseudo-Steinem-like reasons, like bringing up “strong, independent” lasses. And they want girls for Betty Crocker reasons, like dressing them up, taking them to the ballet and having a playmate. And, either way, many want girls so they can have their own Mini-Me projections of themselves.
The practice is euphemistically called "family balancing", and seems to be on the rise. Some doctors only entertain parents' requests if they already have a child of a certain gender, others don't limit performing the procedure at all:
“We have a criteria, and that is that we don’t offer gender selection to a couple for the first time. They have to have one or the other gender of child. This assures that the natural balance between the sexes is not disturbed,” said Dr. Khatamee, the executive director of the Fertility Research Foundation.

But a few doctors don’t observe the one- or two-child rule anymore, and some couples are not in it for “balance.” Some just want a child of a certain gender, and they have always wanted that gender, and they want it with a feral, unflagging, Veruca Salt intensity.

Dr. Steinberg, for example, has no problem with gender selecting for first-time parents. “To some couples,” he said, “the drive to get the gender that they’re after is just as strong as the drive in fertile couples to make sure they don’t have a genetically abnormal baby.”
Wow. Hard to understand the motivation behind first-time parents having a strong enough preference for one gender over another that they spend thousands of dollars to nudge the process along. One can't help but feel like pretty soon, many of these Manhattan parents are going to be stopping at their local gender selection clinic for a designer baby - on the way to meeting their interior decorator to choose furniture for their baby-to-be's designer nursery. (I hope the baby's eyes and hair color match the bumper set and the bugaboo's lining!)

I was happy to read, at least, that the clinics do have some standards for who they perform the procedure on:
And they do screen couples carefully to make sure those couples aren’t completely bonky, that they don’t have “unrealistic expectations,” as Dr. Steinberg put it.

“It’s funny—this week I turned down two people,” the fertility doctor said. “I had one couple that wanted triplet boys and nothing else. I mean, totally crazy. So we booted them. And I had another couple that was unhappy with a teenage daughter and wanted to have a new girl that would be better. So we booted them too.”

Dr. Steinberg added, “It was really weird.”
I would have to imagine it was a bit "weird" to have to mull the requests of a parent to trade up to a better model daughter than the one they were "unhappy with". But what a relief to know that the clinics' standards are so rigorous, isn't it?

One has to wonder how this trend toward designer babies is playing out in the epicenter of Orthodox Jewish materialism - my very own neck of the woods, the Five Towns, where designer everything seems to be the rule (well, almost everything).

Interestingly, I have heard the discussion of gender selection brought up in the Orthodox community, by a friend with quite a few children, all of the same gender. Though she is perfectly happy with her children, and thankful for their good health, she is concerned about fulfilling the mitzvah of "Pru Urvu", the Torah commandment to be fruitful and multiply, which acording to Halacha is not fulfilled until a couple gives birth to at least one child of each gender. Her doctor mentioned one of the techniques described in the article, and she was musing as to whether it was a halachically acceptable procedure. The processes that entail gender selection do raise many halachic questions, though I have heard of specific rulings permitting it being given in a case of a health situation, such as the one mentioned above where both parents are carriers of a transmissible chromosome-linked disorder. I would tend to doubt, however, that a blanket Psak would be given allowing the procedure in the case of a family simply wanting to add to the mix, even if their goal is to fulfill Pru Urvu. I certainly can't imagine it being allowed for the express purpose of "family balance". Of course, I should add, that hasn't stopped parents out here from trying more low-tech techniques, such as I heard about in far too much detail in an incident I outlined here.

Bottom line, I don't see designer babies becoming a new hot trend in my area, much as some moms might probably like the idea of putting one wearing the sweetest little toddler-sized tankini, into their Britax carseat, in the backseat of their shiny SUV, and drive off to the beach club for the day. Designer babies just doesn't seem to me to be the next wave in accessories I see in the Five Towns trend forecast, as exciting as they sound. We'll just have to be content to lag behind Manhattan on this one.

Though one does have to wonder if gender selection is the answer to solving another community crisis - the Shidduch crisis.


Blogger joel rich said...

Check out: Playing G-d: Can I choose my Child? PGD and Genetic Screening


Series: Medical Ethics Society
Date: February 1, 2006
Description: Rabbi Kenneth Brander speaks at the Medical Ethics Society spring Kick off about Playing G-d and Pre-Implantation Genetic Diagnosis


6:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

funny and scary at the same time

8:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, I have so many things to say about this post and the previous post you wrote on this topic. After I had been married a couple of years, I thought for sure all of my friends must be chalishing for boys, after all, a boy in Orthodox Judaism seems so much more valued than a girl: he can learn Torah not just marry someone who can learn Torah. In fact, so many of them are chalishing for GIRLS. It seems to be something in the water of the mikvah, and woman after woman I know has had boy after boy after boy. The ones with mostly girls seem to be the married-later-in-life couples, and the ones with kids from 'treatment' i.e. IVF. Discrete inquiries have enlightened me: among the most Orthodox of Jews especially hasidim, the shidduch crisis is reversed, and there is a shortage of women, not men. In fact, apparently hasidic women are chalishign especially hard for girls, since a woman with only boys will find herself very lonely on Shabbos in a few years.

By the way I have no particular axe to grind on this topic: I have a mixed set. Honestly I have no idea why women risk their health and sometimes their lives just to have one last shot at the other gender.

10:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anon 10:00 here again: so what *is* the gender balance of all of the Orthokids in the Five Towns, anyway? Are the schools overflowing with one gender or the other?

10:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

great post om

10:07 PM  
Blogger mother in israel said...

Most book s about natural fertility methods, such as those by Weschler and by Winstein, have chapters about choosing gender. It's not 100% and it takes a few months of planning, but it seems to work pretty well. No good if you're trying to avoid a Tay-Sachs baby. It involves being aware of ovulation signs and planning accordingly. No cost involved. Weschler does mention that girls are more common later in life, and more first-borns are boys.

12:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

FYI, Tay-Sachs is not an x-linked disorder. X-linked recessive disorders (such as hemophilia) can only be transmitted mother to son. Tay-Sachs, which is inherited from two parents is an autosomal recessive disorder. The gene is on one of the chromosome that both parents share.

Diseases that can be avoided by gender-selection include hemophilia and Duchenne's muscular dystrophy.

Great post; I just wanted to make sure you had all the facts.

5:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

one social concern, if this catches on, is the trend to want a first born son, and then a daughter. (Assuming the classic 2 kid family prevalent in non-Orthodox households).

Many social commentators think this will result in a society of "little sisters" who are weak and dependant on the "big brothers" (i.e., all the men). I'm not a social scientist, but the ethical implications of this have some far-reaching ramifications.

I've always felt that as long as they were healthy (we don't have any x-linked problems), I didn't care all that much. I was happy with my first two girls, I was happy when I had a son, I was happy when my fourth was a girl. Now, if only she would sleep at night . . .

10:15 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you thank you thank you for posting on a non-war related topic. I need a break!

12:17 PM  
Blogger mother in israel said...

jdub--the gemara says, bat rishona siman tov lebanim--a first-born daughter is a good sign for sons. Rashi gives two interpretations for the preference for a first-born daughter. 1. The oldest daughter can help with the future children, or 2. there won't be a first=born son who gets a double inheritance, causing resentment among the other sons.

2:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just because you know the gender does not mean you know who you are getting. Let's say you want a girl. You get a girl. Fine, you think. BUT : she is NOT the girl of your fantasy! She is somebody else completely! That is the trap here, and it is very dangerous.

You just have to work with who you get!

Don't raise the child in your mind. Raise the child who is actually in front of you.

There are only two genders, but a wide variety of people, right?

3:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mother in Israel:

That's well and good, but that's not what people want. (By people, I mean secular Americans.) They are choosing to have a son, then a daughter. If this becomes extremely widespread (currently, it's quite limited) it could have incredible societal ramifications. Right now it's theoretical.

4:42 PM  
Blogger BBJ said...

A friend of mine has two daughters from China, both of whom she adopted when they were quite small. When we were waiting to complete the paperwork for the second adoption, I looked through a collection of photographs on the website of the organization she was working through. I paused at one family in particular. Dad, and three sons who are his spitting image, boys of maybe 18, 16 and 12. Golden retriever. And Mom, sitting in the middle of the family with a baby daughter in a pink smock on her lap, and the radiant smile of a woman who has decided to stop messing around with biological roulette and just have a daughter.

You want a particular gender, adopt. As for the halachic issue--I am not any kind of scholar, but I can't help but think that if a healthy couple has children in all one gender, those are the children they were meant to have. Then again, my great uncle was the only boy, born after five girls...so maybe persistence is all that's needed. But he is still, at the age of nearly eighty, scared of his sisters.

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