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Are we ready for procreative creativity?

By Margaret Renkl

OCTOBER 12, 1998:  In childhood, my brother and I spent a lot of time tormenting our much younger sister. We wouldn't let her play with our best stuff; we banished her from the living room when our friends visited; at the dinner table, we deliberately timed our jokes to make her spew milk across the tablecloth.

Worst of all, we told her that our parents hadn't wanted her, that she was a late-in-life "accident." Because there are virtually no pictures of her as an infant, and because logic itself suggested that the middle-aged parents of two healthy children, one of each gender, were unlikely to bring home an expensive third child on purpose, she believed us.

When put to the question, my parents didn't deny the accusation. "You were a big surprise, all right," my father assured her. Then, ignoring the crestfallen look on his youngest child's face, he turned to my brother and me as we elbowed each other and grinned. "You were too, by the way. You were all surprises."

I looked at him in disbelief. Me? The firstborn, the apple of my adoring father's eye? An unplanned roll of the dice?

"Yep. Every one of you showed up uninvited," he continued. "Here your mother and I were, enjoying ourselves immensely, and BOOM, along comes a baby. Caught us completely by surprise every time."

These days, fewer people are caught off guard by babies. We have a lot of apparent choices about reproduction, the newest of which was announced just a couple of weeks ago by the Genetics & IVF Institute, a private fertility center in Virginia. Today, along with whether and when to have a child, we can opt for what sort of child we have as well.

We can't order up a beautiful blonde physicist or a handsome sweetheart with a wicked fastball--not yet anyway. But we can, if we're willing to go to Virginia and spend 2,500 bucks, dramatically increase our odds (85 percent) of giving birth to a daughter, and double our chances of producing a son.

It's not a complicated procedure, at least for scientists. Ordinary humans have been trying the same thing at home, with considerably less than 85-percent effectiveness, since before the Middle Ages. Until this month, the most up-to-date techniques for gender selection included timing intercourse (before ovulation for a girl, the day of for a boy), varying the mother's sexual position (butt up for a girl, knees up for a boy), and limiting Mom's fulfillment in the experience (no climaxing for a girl, whoop it up for a boy). Only slightly more effective than Henry VIII's multiple-wife strategy for producing a son, these approaches provided considerably fewer successes than the researchers at Genetics & IVF offer now.

As it happens, sperm cells carrying an X chromosome (girl sperm, in other words) have more DNA than boy sperm cells have. Geneticists needed only to find a way to separate the girls from the boys, gather up the cells carrying the desired chromosome, and artificially inseminate an ovulating woman with all-boy or all-girl sperm, depending on the parents' choice. Nine months later, voila: a made-to-order son or daughter.

A whole lot of people have been fussing about this breakthrough since it hit the news. The ramifications, to be sure, are disconcerting. If we can choose a child's gender today, will we be able to designate her religious preference tomorrow? If we can order up a son today, will we be able to create a home run-hitting record-breaker tomorrow? And if well-off parents can one day afford to choose their child's mental and physical characteristics from a menu, will class prejudice become even more ingrained, with buck teeth or acne a dead giveaway of social rank?

Even limiting the scenario to what is already possible (assuming time will bring down costs and make sex selection readily available), what about cultures where women are still second-class citizens: Would the subsequent proliferation of boys create a generation of hormonally-crazed men who kill each other off in competition for mates?

Scary as such prospects are, however, what the Virginia scientists have offered is infinitely better than the most effective gender-selection technique now in use the world over: abortion, or outright infanticide, of infants of the "wrong" gender. And it already has its undebatable medical advantages. Hemophilia, for example, is exclusive to males; parents carrying the gene could elect under this plan to have only daughters--and thus healthy babies.

Ultimately, this particular kind of medical conundrum doesn't especially bother me. Some fertility-related "breakthroughs," on the other hand, can cause immense misery--like the ability to save extremely premature babies who will go through life profoundly handicapped, both mentally and physically, living every moment of that limited life in excruciating pain. In its current state, at least, this particular development seems pretty venial.

In the end, I'll bet that not too many normally fertile folks will opt for artificial insemination over making love as a method of procreation; surely most people will continue happily accepting whatever healthy child nature hands them. And for those parents who truly, desperately want a daughter to dress in bonnets and lace, but instead have a houseful of grubby little boys, what real harm could come from giving nature a little boost there? Kids have a way of thwarting their parents' dearest desires, anyhow, and that little girl in the Easter bonnet would probably end up with a crewcut and a tattoo before it was all over.

As for me, I've got three boys, and I'm glad of them. I suspect most people with same-gender children feel just as glad. There was a time when I thought I wanted daughters, but that was before my first son arrived. Once he got here all I could think about was how wonderful he was, how nothing in life could possibly be more wonderful than having another child just like him.

People no doubt believed my husband and I were hoping for a little girl last time, a sweet daughter to balance out these rough-and-tumble sons. They were wrong. Like my parents before us, we weren't planning anything. We were just having a fine time--loving each other and keeping our hearts open for life's grandest surprise. In the last analysis, it's hard to imagine science ever coming anywhere close to that.

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