Policing parents-to-be

In recommending a ban on sex selection, the UK authority that regulates reproductive technology reveals its deep distrust of infertile couples.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Politics

The UK Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) has adopted the view that its principal mission should be to police potential parents of children born as a result of assisted conception.

The HFEA’s report Sex Selection: Options for Regulation, published in November 2003, recommends a ban on sex selection. The committee clearly believes that parents who want to select the sex of their baby cannot be trusted to look after the best interests of their child. As one father of three boys, who really wants a daughter to ‘balance’ his family, told me: ‘The HFEA seems to think that I am just irresponsible’.

Of course many members of the public disapprove of sex selection on moral grounds. They believe that parents’ attempts to exercise choice over the composition of their family are playing God. Others claim that sex selection will encourage discrimination against girls because of an alleged preference for boys. Some have suggested that selection might ‘upset the balance between sexes’.

Whilst noting these concerns, the HFEA concedes that they do not provide a clear-cut case against selection. If arguments appealing to God’s Will were upheld, then to be consistent the government would have no choice but to ban IVF, not to mention abortion and most forms of contraception. The HFEA also recognises that concerns about upsetting the balance between sexes are based on prejudice rather than fact. Research shows that British parents who wish to select the sex of their baby are just as likely to wish for a girl as a boy.

So why is the HFEA so hostile toward the idea of allowing parents the right to exercise control over their family life? The HFEA defends its decision on the ground that public opinion is overwhelmingly against sex selection. Yet its approach to public opinion is a selective one. The HFEA’s own poll shows that around 69 per cent of the respondents were against sex selection for social reasons. That means that around a third did not oppose parents’ ability to balance their family.

A survey published this year reported that more than one in five Britons would be prepared to pay over £1000 to choose their baby’s sex. No doubt the figure would rise significantly in a survey of parents starting a family. What these surveys show is not a public that is overwhelmingly morally outraged by sex selection but one that is divided, as it is on most issues to do with family life and reproduction.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the HFEA is hiding behind the cloak of public opinion to promote its newly-developed illiberal agenda. The HFEA prefers to appeal to the weight of public opinion when it seeks to regulate parents’ right to choose. In 2002, public opinion was overwhelmingly behind Michelle and Jayson Whitaker, who wanted a genetically selected baby in order to help treat their three-year-old child Charlie, who was suffering from a rare blood disorder. Yet the HFEA did not take very much notice of public opinion then, and banned the Whitakers from undertaking a procedure that would have treated Charlie’s life-threatening condition.

The principal reason why the HFEA opposes selection is because it believes that it knows better than parents what is in the best interest of their child. Its report states that ‘the most persuasive arguments for access to sex selection technologies are related to the welfare of the children and families concerned’. It suggests that children born this way maybe ‘psychologically damaged’ by the knowledge that they were selected for their sex.

Why children so intensely wanted by their parents would be damaged by the knowledge that they were desperately wanted has yet to explained by the HFEA. Even more ludicrous is the HFEA’s claim that sex-selected children would be treated prejudicially since their mothers and fathers would try to mould them to fulfil parental expectations. The argument that children should be given space to develop and not pressured into fulfilling their parents’ expectations has been repeated time and again by the HFEA.

Why should parental expectation be stigmatised? Parents throughout the ages have had clear expectations for their children and often did their best to ensure that their children fulfilled them. It is only on Planet HFEA where parental expectation does not exist. Back on earth, mothers and fathers rear their children with clear expectations in mind. Family life always consists of a creative interaction between the exercise of parental expectation and children’s aspiration. By turning parental expectation into a problem, the HFEA undermines the very foundation on which a creative family life can be conducted.

Yes, there are pushy parents – most of whom do not select the gender of their children. But do we really want a regulatory body like the HFEA to dictate which parenting styles are acceptable and which are not?

When the HFEA was founded in 1990, the intention of parliament was to regulate what were seen then as controversial, cutting-edge treatments and experiments using donated sperms and eggs and embryos. It was given regulatory powers to ensure that couples were not exploited, that the treatments they received were safe and that scientists and clinics were held to public account.

The 1990 Act was a relatively permissive one. It sought to provide opportunities for infertile couples and women to gain access to IVF despite the reservations of religious and conservative organisations. The intention behind the setting up of the HFEA was not to police parents. It did not seek to exercise jurisdiction over the relationship between parents and children.

Sadly, in recent years the HFEA has adopted an illiberal ethos that is deeply suspicious of parents attempting to exercise the right to choose. Back in 1990 when illiberal sentiments were expressed about giving access to IVF to lesbians, single mothers and elderly women, it was rightly argued that they were no less likely than other parents to do the right thing. This sentiment has been reversed. It appears that now the HFEA takes the view that ordinary parents are just as likely as the traditionally stigmatised group of mothers to behave irresponsibly towards their children.

Frank Furedi is professor of sociology at the University of Kent. His books include:

  • Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?: Confronting Twenty-First Century Philistinism (Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004)
    Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

  • Therapy Culture: Cultivating Vulnerability in an Uncertain Age (Routledge, 2003)
    Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

  • Paranoid Parenting: Why Ignoring the Experts May Be Best for Your Child (Chicago Review Press, 2002)
    Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

  • Culture of Fear: Risk Taking and the Morality of Low Expectation

    Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)
  • Visit Frank Furedi’s website

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    Topics Politics


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