New Reproductive Technologies Are Not a Panacea

SUSTAINABILITY FORUM on the Population Factor

September 30, 2011

CREDIT: Christian Guthier (CC).

Inherent in discussions of population growth is the risk of abstracting individuals into numbers, and when that happens the interests of the powerful are likely to win out. At several points over the past two centuries, attempts to reduce birth rates have pitted West against East, white against non-white, and rich against poor. In the process, seemingly innocuous technologies have become tools of discrimination.

As concern over population growth came to a head in the 1960s, for example, one of the solutions proposed was sex selection, or what many then called "sex control." In 1967 and again in 1969, advocates of this approach gathered at conferences sponsored by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and pointed to research showing that one reason women in developing countries continued to have children was that they were trying for a son. Sex selection, the thinking went, would give women the son they so desired on the first try, eliminating the need for unnecessary births.

Prenatal sex determination was still in its developmental stages, and proponents were vague about whether sex selection should be performed through abortion, as has happened in much of the developing world, or through a kind of pre-pregnancy selection made possible by some future breakthrough. (A few enthusiasts pushed for the creation of a "manchild pill" that women could take before sex to ensure any babies conceived would be male.) But they were adamant about its necessity, even as they acknowledged that women's rights would suffer as their numbers decreased.

Skewed sex ratios now threaten both the status of women and societal stability.

Today this all might seem simply a rash of foolishness—if not for the fact that in the past four decades sex selection has significantly reduced the proportion of girls born across Asia and in parts of Eastern Europe. Skewed sex ratios now threaten both the status of women and societal stability.

That tackling population growth entails the risk of trampling on individual rights doesn't mean we should give up, however. One of the lessons in this story is that at the time sex selection was heralded, research had already suggested that women who were given work and education opportunities would—provided they had access to contraception—choose to have fewer children.

Investing in the future of women would have been more expensive than providing methods for reducing their numbers, and it would have taken longer to yield results, but it would have been a good in itself.

Today most family planning organizations embrace the notion of investing in women's rights, and that's heartening. But they should remain vigilant about repeating the mistakes of the past, particularly when it comes to considering new technologies. One guiding point might be this: Technological solutions that seem quick and easy are often the most suspect. The tens of millions of women missing from Asia are testament to their danger.