The Ethics of Sperm-Sorting to Get Male Babies

The Ethics of Sperm-Sorting to Get Male Babies August 22, 2019

Parents with baby shoes
Parents with baby shoes (CC0 Drew Hays on Unsplash)

Scientists have created a gel that changes the speed of sperm. It slows down sperm with an X chromosome, increasing the possibility of a male child from about 50% to about 90%. I know this sounds like science fiction but it is real. It has mainly been tested in IVF but there is nothing stopping its use in natural intercourse. I’ll explain what this is and attempt an initial moral evaluation.

New Sperm-Sorting Gel

It is called “sperm-sorting,” but it is really more of sperm-slowing. New Scientist explains.

It was thought that the sperm of mammals that lead to male and female offspring are identical except for the DNA they carry. But Masayuki Shimada of Hiroshima University in Japan and his colleagues have found that 500 genes are active in sperm that carry the X chromosome, which give rise to female offspring, that aren’t active in sperm that carry the Y chromosome, which lead to male offspring.

Of these genes, 18 code for proteins that stick out from the sperm cell’s surface. The team has found that chemicals that bind to two of these proteins can slow down the movement of X-carrying sperm without affecting the Y-carrying ones.

This discovery makes it simple to separate sperm according to the sex of the offspring they could produce. When the researchers used this method on mouse sperm, they found that selecting the fastest swimmers for conception led to 90 per cent of the resulting pups being male. When they used slowed-down sperm, the pups were 81 per cent female. […]

However, [Alireza Fazeli of Tartu University in Estonia] thinks it may not be necessary to select the fastest or slowest swimmers before insemination or IVF to influence the sex of an embryo. He says that, if the chemicals were added to a gel or foam applied inside the vagina before sex, this could be enough to greatly increase a couple’s chances of conceiving a boy.

Immediately, we might recognize issues arising. Even New Scientist mentions some issues.

There is likely to be an appetite for such products, especially in countries where sex ratios have already been distorted in favour of boys. “In countries where there is already a skewed sex ratio, it is clear that if there are more easy, cheap, accessible technologies they will be used,” says bioethicist Wybo Dondorp of Maastricht University in the Netherlands. […]

“I am concerned about the social impact of this,” says Fazeli. “It’s so simple. You could start to do it in your bedroom. Nobody would be able to stop you from doing it.”

Moral Implications of Sperm Sorting

Obviously, from a Catholic perspective, IVF is immoral. Thus, if used in conjunction with IVF, this would be immoral.

However, a question about using this in natural intercourse arrises. Couples can time their intercourse around a woman’s ovulation to increase the chance of getting a boy or girl. This timing might increase the chance of one sex or the other from 50% to 55 or 60%. Such timing seems moral because, during each act, the couple is doing nothing to stop conception. It is similar to how a couple abstaining for those fertile days is moral. However, using a gel seems different as the gel slows the sperm down and thus prevents conception by sperm with an X chromosome. This seems to be contraceptive, regarding possible female children, thus immoral.

I would think that this would also have problematic secondary effects such as likely abortion of female fetuses and a sense of entitlement over kids which is unhealthy. These do not prove it is immoral but tend to lend credence to that proposition.

Before closing, I want to make two cautionary notes. First, the Vatican has not ruled on this and I have not read other moral theologians or bioethicists. I could be convinced otherwise as I am just putting forward an initial response, and I would submit to a Vatican declaration. Second, so far this has only been done on animals. Theoretically, this can work on human sperm but we have no proof yet.

Let’s pray that people realize the moral problems with this technology and decide never to use it. We should not discriminate against females in preventing them from being conceived.

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