I have often pondered whether I would rather be a parent to a male or female child. I weigh the types of activities I feel I could perform with these two imaginary children, what kinds of adorable outfits I could dress them up in, the type of bond I would forge with them, the life lessons I would be able to teach them. In gender-equal societies, when a parent has a preference for a particular sex of child, it is usually due to issues such as their perceived ability to socialize and raise boys vs. girls, gender identity issues, ideas about relationships, perceived characteristics of gender, a wish to keep the family name going etc. For me, I ultimately I think about which gender would be most resilient to the mistakes I am bound to make as a mother. Am I more likely to screw up a boy or a girl? I have no reason to think I will be any worse at motherhood than the next gal (other than the fact I forgot to feed my dog twice last week), it is
simply fear of the unknown that drives my insecurity. But in reality if whether fate or chance (whatever you believe) brings me boy or girl, I would be equally elated. Furthermore, I am more than happy to wait until I am in the delivery room to find out if chromosomal mixing means I will be painting the nursery pink or blue. Many choose to find out earlier, to plan accordingly or simply because the suspense is just too much, and technology has made this possible with fetal ultrasound. It is even possible to know the sex of your baby before it is implanted in the case of in vitro fertilization. And with the work that has been done and continues to be done on the human genome project, there is growing potential for testing for various diseases while babies are still in the womb. While technology can be a wonderful thing, it can also have sinister implications. And in the above cases, there is concern that technology has and possibly will be used as a tool to continue misogynistic practices that have been going on for thousands of years. I am referring to the practice of purposely selecting for male offspring.
In Ancient Greece and Rome infanticide was routine and even encouraged. Often babies were simply abandoned, and died of exposure rather than outright murdered, which was considered barbaric. Infants were killed if they had birth defects or medical problems, if the parents could not afford to raise them, or if they were born out of a wedded union or out of incest. Another common reason for infanticide was simply that the baby was female. In 200 BC in Delphi only 1% of the 6 000 families living there had more than one daughter. This practice has occurred in a number of societies throughout history. Theories for why female infanticide may have occurred more often than male infanticide include the fact that males were valued more in society, that the father may want to avoid eventually paying a dowry, or that if there were too many women in the society their daughter may not marry thus shaming the family and being an economic burden. Most cultures have long since abandoned the practice of female infanticide, but it is still an issue in certain countries, the most notorious being India and China. In rural India census statistics for 1994 indicated there were 929 females to 1000 males which had actually decreased from 1901 data of 972 females to 1000 males. In 1993, 196 girls died of suspicious circumstances. John-Thor Dahlburg, author of the article “Where killing baby girls ‘is not big sin’” in the Los Angeles Times says “Some were fed dry, unhulled rice that punctured their windpipes, or were made to swallow poisonous powdered fertilizer. Others were smothered with a wet towel, strangled or allowed to starve to death.” What occurs more often today is that female infants are killed before birth by sex-selective abortion. Women can learn the sex of their child through ultrasound or amniocentesis and choose to abort if carrying a daughter rather than a son. Male heirs are greatly preferred. They are considered higher up in the caste system than females. They contribute more to household income through work, and many families in India are very poor. The average civil servant earns $3 500 a year. Furthermore, although outlawed, the payment of a dowry to the groom’s family from the bride’s family is still often practiced in India. This, combined with the cost of the wedding which is also the responsibility of the bride’s family, can be extremely expensive. (Up to $30 000 or more). And if the dowry is deemed insufficient, the woman can then be killed by the groom’s family. In China, female infanticide was rampant before formation of the People’s Republic in 1949 but almost disappeared afterwards until the 1980’s after the “one-child” policy was instituted in 1979 to control the rapidly growing population. By 1997 the WHO issued a report claiming that “more than 50 million women were estimated to be ‘missing’ in China because of the institutionalized killing and neglect of girls due to Beijing’s population control program that limits parents to one child.” The imbalance in the female to ratio also increased drastically, so much so that one study reported by Jonathan Manthorpe estimated 111 million Chinese men would not find a wife. The number of women kidnapped and forced into sex slavery and forced marriages increased. But this hasn’t stopped the rampant female infanticide. China has the highest sex disparity among infants:120 boys for every 100 girls. No one likes to talk about it, but everyone knows it is going on. In China, families can only have one child, with the exception being families in rural communities whose first child is a girl. Chinese culture holds men in higher regard than women. Women have always been victimized, starting with the ancient tradition of foot binding which went on for over 1000 years. Historically, when a woman marries, she is no longer financially responsible for her own parents, only her in-laws, so parents know they will be better cared for if they have a son. Sons will pass on the family lineage, can better provide for the family, are heads of households etc. There are many reasons Chinese parents want their one child to be a boy.
When we hear about these practices that take place in other areas of the world often we turn the other cheek. It doesn’t affect us. This doesn’t happen in industrialized nations like ours. But it does. Currently in Canada it is illegal to use reproductive medicine to select the gender of a child. This is not the case in the US. Recently here in British Columbia a local Indo-Canadian newspaper came under fire when it published an ad for the Washington Centre for Reproductive Medicine in Bellevue which promises to “Create the Family you Want: Boy or Girl” The clinic will tell the parents whether the embryo they have fertilized is a boy or a girl before it is implanted into the mother’s uterus, thus allowing them to decide whether they want to go ahead with implantation. In this way the parents can effectively select the gender of their baby, or at least select against the sex they do not wish to have. The president of the Progressive Intercultural Community Services Society feels the ad was inappropriate and that they targeted this newspaper because “they know the Indo-Canadian community wants more boys.” On April 16 2012 The Canadian Medical Association Journal released a study confirming previous research showing that the male-to-female ratio for third-born children to women born in India and living in Ontario was higher than the natural rate (136 boys to 100 girls for Indian women vs 105 boys to 100 girls for Canadian-born mothers, close to worldwide average). The lead researcher Dr. Joel Ray states that “these findings are highly unlikely to be due to chance”. The study raises the issue sex-selective abortion which has played a part in other studied high male-female sex ratios in other ethnic groups in Canada. The results are also similar to other studies performed in the US. Although it is illegal to use reproductive medicine for gender selection, however families can still use sex-selective abortion to ensure they do not have female children. Many hospitals are refusing to reveal fetal sex during ultrasound, or at least withholding the information until the 30th week of gestation when abortion is illegal. However even when this is the case, many private clinics are popping up where parents can learn the sex of their unborn child for a fee.
The real solution is not necessarily preventing women from using the technology available. It is changing their attitudes about the information the technology affords them. We need to work on changing these cultural biases towards males and teach these families the value of women. We need to help these mothers to love, respect and believe in themselves so that they can see that their daughters can be of as much worth to them as their sons. Hopefully one day in all societies the only worry parents will have is whether their children will be happy and healthy.
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