Sex Selection or Gender Selection? Queering the Ratio Question

I am at a fantastic event at Yale I co-organized on Intersections in Reproduction: Perspectives on Abortion, Assisted Reproductive Technologies, and Judicial Review with some amazing scholars present and excellent papers being presented. Like many people who have thought about sex selection, I would have imagined I have thought through most of the issues from most perspectives. What I love about these gatherings is that they always prove me wrong.

Today two very interesting questions were raised about a common argument raised about sex selection, the risk that it will result in unbalanced sex ratios. Our discussion, I would say, “queered” the typical claim in two interesting ways, and I am curious what others think (to be clear these were my thoughts on questions raised, not putting words in their mouths).

(1) Is “sex” rather than “gender” selection the thing that matters? Suppose the number of biological males and females was altered, but not the number of “men” and “women” in the social sense of gender? Or suppose the opposite was true (sex ratios remain the same but gender ratios are skewed). While we have some data about sex ratios in the population, we have almost nothing on gender ratios. Which is it that matters and why? What role does sexuality come to play in this? Suppose that the sex ratios get skewed, but because of gay, lesbian, and bisexual numbers in the community the number of individuals able to find a romantic partner stays the same? Also, what role for non-monogamy? Does the concern about sex selection distorting sex or gender ratios stem from an assumption that monogamous coupling is the norm, rather than serial monogamy or polyamorous coupling?

(2) Sometimes a defense against restricting sex selection in the U.S. (or elsewhere) is the claim that many people choose girls. This is an attempt to refute the gender inequality/subordination account of sex selection. But, in fact, is this just as gender subordinative? They want girls and not boys for a reason, because girls are X. And the X is not sex but gender. The same might be said for those who want a girl or a boy for “family balancing” reasons, the assumption being that diversity is added to the family by adding a child of the other sex, because such a child will be different. To put the question another way, how much does the sex selection debate, in the name of women’s rights, end up accepting a strongly gendered conception of how biological males and females are to behave.

I. Glenn Cohen

I. Glenn Cohen is the James A. Attwood and Leslie Williams Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and current Faculty Director of the Petrie-Flom Center. A member of the inaugural cohort of Petrie-Flom Academic Fellows, Glenn was appointed to the Harvard Law School faculty in 2008. Glenn is one of the world's leading experts on the intersection of bioethics (sometimes also called "medical ethics") and the law, as well as health law. He also teaches civil procedure. From Seoul to Krakow to Vancouver, Glenn has spoken at legal, medical, and industry conferences around the world and his work has appeared in or been covered on PBS, NPR, ABC, CNN, MSNBC, Mother Jones, the New York Times, the New Republic, the Boston Globe, and several other media venues. He was the youngest professor on the faculty at Harvard Law School (tenured or untenured) both when he joined the faculty in 2008 (at age 29) and when he was tenured as a full professor in 2013 (at age 34).

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