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Parshas Tazria-Metzora (5770)

A Boy or a Girl? The Ethics of Gender Selection

As this week’s double Torah portion, Parshas Tazria-Metzora, begins with various laws concerning the birth of a boy or girl, I thought this would be a good time to offer a Torah viewpoint on the ethics of preconception gender selection.

Just to give a little background on the topic …. in recent years, modern technological advances have allowed people to choose the gender of their child at levels of accuracy never previously witnessed. The two most popular (and costly) methods used today are the pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) method and the flow cytometry separation (FCS) method. With PGD, embryos resulting from in-vitro fertilization (IVF) procedures are genetically tested for X or Y Chromosomes. The embryos of the desired sex are then implanted. With FCS (often called the MicroSort method), the X-Chromosome-bearing sperm are separated from the Y-Chromosome-bearing sperm by having them pass through a flow cytometer. The desired sperm can then be used to fertilize the ova using either IVF or intrauterine insemination (IUI, also known as artificial insemination).

The issue of gender selection through PGD or FCS is quickly becoming the most controversial development in Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART). There are many halachic (Torah law) and ethical questions that arise from these techniques. [Obviously, there are many instances in which there is a great medical benefit in genetic diagnosis and pre-selection of embryos, and which should be dealt with by medical and halachic experts on a case-by-case basis. We refer here to the use of gender selection for non-medical purposes only.]

From a halachic perspective, one must first address the issue of whether or not IUI and IVF are permissible technologies inasmuch as they involve haschasas zera, wasting of “seed”. Many Poskim (Rabbinical authorities on Jewish Law) permit IUI and IVF for those suffering from infertility. Could this be extended to allow these procedures for “elective” purposes such as gender selection?

Furthermore, there are some risks involved in these procedures, and the Torah forbids endangering one’s life, even for a mitzvah. Do the benefits of gender selection outweigh the various risks in using these technologies?

As well, there is a major question as to whether or not one fulfills the mitzvah of Pru U’Rvu (“Be Fruitful and Multiply” – the Biblical obligation to bear a son and a daughter) using these non-conventional methods.

From a moral/ethical perspective, there is a concern that selection of gender through PGD and FCS will become a “slippery slope” in which people will start using these high-tech preconception methods to select other genetic features such as intellect, athletic ability, looks etc. – creating “designer babies” and arguably tampering with G-d’s creation.

Additionally, there is a danger that sex selection will invariably lead to a serious distortion of the male/female sex ratio. And there are other ethical issues as well.

There is a fascinating Midrash Rabbah in Parshas Toldos on the verse in which the aging patriarch Isaac tells his son Esau, “I know not the day of my death” (Genesis 27:2): “The Rabbis taught: Seven things are concealed from man: They are (1) the day of his death; (2) the date of the Final Redemption; (3) the full severity of G-d's judgment; (4) the business in which he will succeed; (5) another person's thoughts; (6) the gender of a child before its birth: (7) the precise moment of Esau's descendants’ downfall, which will follow the arrival of the Messiah.

This Midrash is difficult to understand in light of modern technologies such as ultrasound, which allow us to see and predict the gender of a child inside its mother with unfailing accuracy well before its birth.

The commentaries explain that the Midrash means to say that these seven things – even if one could find them out – are best left concealed and hidden from man for a variety of reasons. When we consider all the thorny ethical issues that arise as a result of our high-tech ability to know the gender and other features of the baby in utero, we can appreciate what the Midrash is teaching us – that we shouldn’t “play G-d” and attempt to design the baby of our dreams, tampering with His creations. Maybe instead of trying to “pick and choose” what we get, we should humbly adopt an attitude of gratitude and thanks for any baby that G-d sends our way, no matter what the gender.

The problem is that we tend to think that everything is coming to us, instead of considering it the gift it truly is. Even the way we refer to pregnant mothers as “expecting” smacks of entitlement, as if we are only claiming what is rightfully ours, when the truth is that nothing is coming to us. If a rich uncle died and left you a green 2006 Mercedes, would you complain about the color? So if G-d, our “rich relative in the sky”, sends us a beautiful, healthy little baby, how can we complain about the gender?

May we merit to always see all the gifts G-d has given us – good health, loving family, a decent job, whatever – for what they truly are.

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