Allowing sex selection for social reasons would be highly unlikely to skew the gender balance – at least in Germany and the UK – according to new research published today (Thursday 25 September) in Europe’s leading reproductive medicine journal Human Reproduction.
Surveys of more than 1,000 men and women in each country did reveal differences between the two countries, with the British expressing stronger gender preferences and the Germans being more relaxed about the sex of their children. The UK respondents were also much keener than the Germans on the idea of using reproductive technology to choose the sex of their babies.
But, as more than two thirds of the British expressed a wish to have an equal number of boys and girls anyway, the researchers concluded that these preferences would prevent any gender imbalances from happening in the UK if sex selection for social reasons is ever allowed.
Lead investigator Dr Edgar Dahl, a bioethics specialist and research fellow at the Medical Center of the University of Giessen in Germany, said preconception sex selection for non-medical reasons raised serious moral, legal and social issues. The main concern was based on the assumption that a freely available sex selection service would distort the natural sex ratio. But, for a severe gender imbalance to occur there would have to be two conditions met – a significant preference for children of a particular sex and a considerable demand for preconception sex selection.
The researchers used a randomised computer assisted telephone interview system to question representative samples of the German and UK populations – 1,094 men and women aged 18 to 45 in Germany and 1,001 men and women aged 18 and older in the UK.
In Germany (excluding the small percentage of undecided):
58% said they did not care about the sex of their children,
30% said they wanted an equal number of boys and girls,
4% would like more boys than girls,
3% would like more girls than boys,
1% would prefer only boys,
1% would prefer only girls,
14.2% would prefer a first born boy
10.2% would prefer a first born girl:
75.6% had no preference for their first born
Given a situation where they could opt for a sex selection technique such as MicroSort and pay EUR2,000 per attempt for up to five cycles of intrauterine insemination, only 6% said they would take advantage of preconception sex selection: 92% rejected it out of hand. Even in a hypothetical situation where they could take a blue pill for a boy and a pink pill for a girl 9 out of 10 said they would still not be interested.
In the UK (excluding the small percentage of undecided):
16% said they did not care about the sex of their children,
68% said they wanted an equal number of boys and girls,
6% would like more boys than girls,
4% would like more girls than boys,
3% would prefer only boys,
2% would prefer only girls,
16% would prefer a first born boy,
10% would prefer a first born girl
73% had no preference for their first born
When they were asked what their preference would be if they could have only one child, 19% preferred a boy and 17% a girl: 57% had no preference. The rest were undecided.
Given a situation where they could pay £1,250 per attempt for up to five cycles of intrauterine insemination, 21% said they would like to take advantage of the technology, 7% were undecided and 71% rejected the idea.
"Compared to the Germans, the British are much more receptive to the idea of employing reproductive technology to select the sex of their children and they seem to have considerably stronger gender preferences," said Dr Dahl. "While one third of Germans wish to have an equal number of boys and girls, 68% of the British want a family with equal numbers. But, it is precisely this marked preference for a ‘balanced family’ in the UK that would prevent any gender imbalances from happening there.
"Much of the opposition to ‘social’ sex selection is based on the assumed danger of a sex ratio distortion due to a common preference for boys over girls. But, according to our surveys, this assumption seems to be unfounded," said Dr Dahl.
He said there was no statistically significant difference between choices given by men and women in the survey, though men slightly preferred boys and women slightly preferred girls. "It seems as if couples are sometimes making a deal – OK let’s have two kids – a boy for you and a girl for me," he said.
Dr Dahl plans to carry out similar surveys in France, Italy, Spain, India and the US.
Science and Religion Information Service. September 2003.