Designer babies, gender, science and a ghost

embryo2A long, long, time ago, during a press conference with Rep. Patricia Schroeder of (D-Colo.), I asked a question that I thought was perfectly logical. At the time, she was one of the most outspoken voices in the U.S. Congress on every imaginable progressive cause, especially abortion rights and other issues linked to the lifestyle left.

Someone raised the topic of gay rights and I asked a follow-up. If I understood correctly, I said, Schroeder’s stance on the issue was rooted in her conviction that homosexuals were born gay and that this would, eventually, be proven by science. The congresswoman said this was correct. So if a “gay gene” was discovered, and parents could detect this with prenatal tests of some kind, would she oppose the abortion of homosexual fetuses?

Based on the glares from Schroeder and her aide, this question was considered somewhat off the wall in the mid-1980s.

However, I knew that gay ethicists, theologians and even artists were already asking that question, and they have asked it many times in the years since then. It is also one of the questions hidden between the lines of the recent Washington Post news feature by Rob Stein titled “A Boy for You, a Girl for Me: Technology Allows Choice.” The sub-headline added, “Embryo Screening Stirs Ethics Debate.” I still think there was a ghost in this story.

Along with the heartwarming cases of parents happy with their pro-choice options, the story did quote a number of experts offering alternative viewpoints, such as:

. . . (Others) say the practice, which is prohibited in many countries, uses expensive medical care for frivolous purposes, destroys some embryos just because they are the “wrong” sex, and promotes gender discrimination. Moreover, the critics say, the trend is a dangerous first step toward transforming childbirth from a natural process full of surprise and wonder into just another commodity in which a baby’s features are picked like options on a new car.

“It runs the risk of turning procreation and parenting into an extension of the consumer society,” said Michael J. Sandel, a political philosopher at Harvard University. “Sex selection is one step down the road to designer children, in which parents would choose not only the sex of their child but also conceivably the height, hair color, eye color, and ultimately, perhaps, IQ, athletic prowess and musical ability. It’s troubling.”

The article also moves past the designer-baby issue and asks the kinds of ultimate questions one would tend to hear raised in, well, places such as the Vatican and the headquarters of Focus on the Family. What happens — in a largely sexist world — when something does go wrong and parents do not get what they want? Is gender a sin? After all, critics note that these techniques

. . . (Allow) parents to discriminate on the basis of sex, and they point to countries such as India and China, where a preference for boys has led to abortion of female fetuses and abandonment of baby girls, creating a shortage of women. . . .

Because MicroSort is not 100 percent reliable, critics fear it may lead to the selective abortion of fetuses, particularly females.

I really don’t mean to whine, but I do think that reporters need to realize that, for the vast majority of their readers, these kinds of stories — which will only increase time and time again in the years ahead — have a religious dimension.

Ethical questions are good. Moral questions are good. But when people start debating ultimate topics of life and death and right and wrong, content directly related to faith and the beliefs of religious people of all stripes should be included.

The ghosts are not hard to find. In fact, it is hard to avoid them.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Molly

    “Because MicroSort is not 100 percent reliable”

    I misread this as MicroSOFT and was surprised to find Bill Gates at the center of this issue!

  • tmatt

    This would not be a surprise, actually, if you are familiar with the giving patterns for his foundation. Reproductive rights are way, way up on his list. He is United Church of Christ, sort of…

  • Richard

    When one considers the implications of this sort of thing it conjurs up visions of Nazi Germany’s attempts to create a “super race”. It’s scary to imagine, in this consumer oriented society of ours, all sorts of nitwit individuals being able to choose many of their children’s characteristics. It’s a brave new world I don’t think I want to be alive to see, but a lot may come to pass in the next 25 – 30 years that I will probably be around for. Along with cloning human beings, this sort of stuff should be banned.

  • dlw

    I’m sure tmatt’s aware that twin-studies have undermined the case that homosexuality is due to genes. Although, the best theory right now is that it is due to the hormonal balance formed in our brains as fetuses. See my blog-entry.

    What I’d like is some feedback on my own position that sets out a way we can agree to legally redefine the beginning of human personhood.


  • Marie

    The best part of the article was the first clause of this paragraph:

    “Originally developed for livestock breeding, the MicroSort technique can sort male-producing sperm from female-producing sperm because the latter carries slightly more DNA. A woman can then be artificially inseminated with the sperm for the sex she wants.”

    That says it all, and, most likely, the writer didn’t even pick up on it.

  • Darrell Grizzle

    Did Patricia Schroeder ever answer your question, tmatt, or did she just glare? (I wish I could have seen her struggle with this question! She was probably imagining the headlines: “Schroeder Advocates Aborting Gay Babies”…)


  • Joe Perez

    You’all need to get Photoshop so you can spice up the pictures you use. There should be a rainbow flag in the fingertips of that fetus!

  • Dan Berger

    I think it’s a perfectly good point. Pro-choice folks think nothing of aborting, say, a Downs baby; we prenatally screened our son for detectable defects because every one of my mother-in-law’s brothers were severely retarded.

    Raising a gay child is likely to present as much difficulty (though different ones) as raising a Downs child. The point of an unlimited abortion license is that the parent’s (or parents’) convenience comes first.

    Dan Berger

  • Joe Perez

    “Raising a gay child is likely to present as much difficulty (though different ones) as raising a Downs child.”

    There’s nothing I can say to this that wouldn’t violate the blog’s civility guidelines. Get a grip.

  • Dan Berger


    See the recent (Washington Post?) series on that gay teenager in Texas, and the real anguish his mother went through.

    YMMV. But as I said, the point of an unlimited abortion license is that the parent’s convenience comes first.