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Girls R Us: Sex Selection, Sound Bites and Weak Data

Posted by Gina Maranto, Biopolitical Times guest contributor on November 21st, 2012


I finally got around to reading Hanna Rosin’s article, “The End of Men,” which ran in the Atlantic Monthly in July/August this year. I’d heard some of the noise about the piece back then and figured that like other members of the genre (e.g., Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man, or John Horgan’s The End of Science) the title served more as a provocation than a believable prognostication – Fukuyama published in 1992 and Horgan in 1996, and last I checked, history and science are still ginning along.

I was actually kind of sorry to find that I was right. I’m not going to take on Rosin’s overarching argument about the ascendancy of women on a post-industrial planet, mainly because where to start? Despite a few nods to trends in Korea, India, and China, her optic is white, 1-per-centish, and American. But I am going to take apart her claim that there is a global shift afoot that is “eroding the historical preference for male children,” which is based mostly on, it seems, wishful thinking, suspect data, and faulty logic.

Rosin fills most of her seven-paragraph lede with a lot of fluff and color about the cowboy predilections of reproductive physiologist Ronald Ericsson. Given all the details about his ranch and Marlboro commercials and his Old West “swagger,” it comes as a surprise that the real reason for his being there is so that he can deliver a pronouncement about an epochal shift. Rosin quotes him as saying, “Did male dominance exist? Of course it existed. But it seems to be gone now. And the era of the firstborn son is totally gone.”

Why choose Ericsson to deliver this news? Well, because in 1973, Ericsson and two colleagues had published a letter in Nature describing a technique for sorting Y-chromosome-bearing sperm – that is, those that would produce male offspring – from those carrying X chromosomes. The method could reliably produce samples that contained 85% Y-bearing sperm.

When I interviewed Ericsson in 1984 for a Discover piece I wrote on sex selection, the cowboy schtick was thankfully not in evidence. The concern of ethicists, feminists, and others I spoke with then was that such techniques would be used overwhelmingly to have sons. Ericsson was unconcerned, categorically dismissing any objections to sperm sorting.

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Posted in Assisted Reproduction, Bioethics, Civil Society, Reproductive Justice, Health & Rights, Sex Selection


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