Newsweek has an interesting cover story this week:

Brave New Babies

The brave new world is definitely here. After 25 years of staggering advances in reproductive medicine–first test-tube babies, then donor eggs and surrogate mothers–technology is changing baby-making in a whole new way. No longer can science simply help couples have babies, it can help them have the kind of babies they want. Choosing gender may obliterate one of the fundamental mysteries of procreation, but for people who have grown accustomed to taking 3-D ultrasounds of fetuses, learning a baby’s sex within weeks of conception and scheduling convenient delivery dates, it’s simply the next logical step. That gleeful exclamation, “It’s a boy!” or “It’s a girl!” may soon just be a quaint reminder of how random births used to be.


The ability to create baby Jack or baby Jill opens a high-tech can of worms. While the advances have received kudos from grateful families, they also raise loaded ethical questions about whether science is finally crossing a line that shouldn’t be crossed. Even fertility specialists are divided over whether choosing a male or female embryo is acceptable. If couples can request a baby boy or girl, what’s next on the slippery slope of modern reproductive medicine? Eye color? Height? Intelligence? Could picking one gender over the other become the 21st century’s form of sex discrimination? Or, as in China, upset the ratio of males to females? Many European countries already forbid sex selection; should there be similar regulations in the United States?

It amazes me that a society can be so dedicated to “choice” that it serves as the rationale for the aborting of thousands of fetuses a year but yet gets so hysterical over comparatively benign options.

Are male babies so obviously desirable that parents would choose them so overwhelmingly that we’d have an inadequate supply of girl babies? That’s seems amazingly unlikely to me. It’s true that in an agrarian society there’s some advantage to male offspring as free farm labor. There’s even a slight incentive that, if a couple only has one child, that is be male so that the family line continues on. But I’d guess that most families that have a second child would prefer to have a girl to “have one of each.” And, if boys started to suddenly outnumber girls in the baby pool, one would think the prestige of girls would shoot up and counterbalance it. Further, one could argue that a slight preference for male children counterbalances trends in society that otherwise conspire to create an overbalance of females. Young males die in accidents, wars, and the like at a rate far disproportionate to women. Women also outlive men, creating an imbalance amount the senior set.

As to height, eye and hair color, intelligence, and the like, why not allow choice? With the exception of trying to find work as a jockey, there are few advantages to being of short stature. Similarly, one would think the ability to create children of higher intelligence would be a good thing. The job prospects of the sub-100 IQ cohort are getting progressively worse. Why not eliminate the creation of a heritable underclass?

When in vitro fertilization was developed in the late 1970s–when the news media referred to the result as “test tube babies”–there was all sort of hysteria. Nonsense about “playing God” and the like. We’ve adjusted nicely and now thousands of couples who had been unable to have children of their own, can. That’s a good thing.

Nature produces flaws. Technology has helped correct some of those flaws over the years. We’ve cured many a disease, vastly improved surgical techniques to repair birth defects and later-in-life malfunctions, created mechanical devices to improve defective eyes, ears, and limbs. We even have plastic surgery to make people prettier. What’s so different about this?

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Tiger says:

    Heck, I suspect that sooner or later, people will just order babies right off of a website, sent to a form with a series of radio buttons to make selections about various features. Bouncin’ baby whatever to be delivered by UPS’ new pink vans.

  2. JW says:

    What scares people about this type of technology is–what happens if it doesn’t work? If the “glitch” is discovered in the womb, the mother may abort. If discovered later in life, the child may sue any and everyone involved.

    And if you think that societies that value male children won’t take some pretty drastic measures now to ensure their family has boys instead of girls, you haven’t paid attention the number of baby girls being adopted in American from orphanages in China.

  3. Bob Hawkins says:

    In the future, not only will people of a given age all be “Tiffanys,” they’ll all look like Tiffanys.

  4. James Joyner says:

    JW: The China thing doesn’t apply very well here since we’re not limiting the number of babies per couple to one, thus maximizing the incentive to have it be male. And, of course, mothers can abort babies for any reason whatsoever during the first trimester–and virtually any reason during the second–now.

  5. zygote says:

    If everyone was selecting girls, I would want to have a son just to be able to say, “Son, you don’t have to worry about chasing women. They’ll chase after you. Best of all, they’ll have to lower their standards.”
    Vaguely reminiscent of that SNL sketch from a few years ago.
    On the other hand, a world full of boys…if I had a girl I’d have to really stock up on shotgun shells.

  6. TM Lutas says:

    They keep stats on sex selection abortions. People have measured this. My understanding is that it is absurdly lopsided with many more girls being aborted than boys. The number that sticks in my mind is 99% girls but I think that was just a Canada figure. India, China, all across Asia with the exception of Japan they’re creating a demographic time bomb.

  7. SwampWoman says:

    So I reckon that girls that chase cars and howl at the moon will pretty much be assured of her pick of dates to the prom.

  8. In adoption, it’s the opposite: couples that voice a preference overwhelmingly choose girl babies.

  9. JW says:

    James, you’re right that we can abort for any reason now. But imagine if you had spent thousands of dollars to get what you wanted–and didn’t get it. That would be a lawsuit Mecca of biblical proportions. I don’t worry so much about the abortion side of the issue (the fight about that issue is over until there’s a vacancy on the Supreme Court) as I do the thought of perfectly healthy and happy babies being labeled “mistakes” because they didn’t come made to order.

    And the high price of raising a child in America is a perfect example of a market-driven “one child” policy, two-child max.

  10. I think I’d like to limit this sort of thing to correcting defects, rather than allowing for “designer babies”. I need to think more on it – right now the idea has a high “ick factor” for me.

    Hmmm, actually, as all good Star Trek fans should know, this sort of thing can create some serious problems…