Family planning is more gender-specific than many parents are willing to admit

November 25, 1993|By Nora Frenkiel | Nora Frenkiel,New York Times News Service

In the fourth month of her second pregnancy, the ultrasound screen shadows revealed an unmistakable fact: Joan Wisner-Carlson was carrying another boy. "I guess we're going for a third child" were the first words her husband, Bob, a psychiatrist, said.

"We really wanted a girl and I was secretly hoping we'd have one, so I have to admit I was kind of disappointed," Ms. Wisner-Carlson, a free-lance writer, said one sunny morning in a Baltimore back yard strewn with toys.

Play-group parents gathered on the deck shared feelings about a subject frequently discussed and often cloaked in embarrassment: sex preference for children.

These parents, in their 30s, have access to the newest technology, which can determine the sex of fetuses only weeks old and holds the promise of sex selection through in-vitro fertilization and perhaps one day, cloning.

But the discussion of sex preference is an age-old one fraught with cultural baggage.

Adding to the societal pressures that favor boys for carrying on family names and supporting aging parents are other deeply held desires to duplicate or to avoid repeating one's own family relationships: a mother who grew up in family of girls may want to re-create that experience for her children.

For some parents, the disappointment of having a child of the "wrong" sex never truly goes away. "The box of girlish clothes I've been collecting is going into the attic," Ms. Wisner-Carlson said, adding that she's not yet ready to give them away.

In many countries like China and India, boys continue to be favored, so much so that prenatal diagnosis has been used in those countries to target female fetuses for abortion.

In China, recent reports have revealed that widespread abortions have led to about 1.7 million fewer infant girls each year, based on projections of normal birth rates.

In the United States, doctors interviewed around the country believe that abortions on the basis of sex are extremely rare, although studies have shown that the desire for male children remains strong.

A 1988 study confirmed the bias toward male first-born children. Reported in the journal Psychological Reports, the study examined sex preference for first- and second-born children among more than 1,000 university students and found the boy-then-girl order favored by more than half the men and only slightly fewer of the women.

Some would-be parents acknowledge being influenced by media images of the perfect American family -- buying a car, eating at McDonald's, visiting Disney World -- always two parents and two children, a boy and a girl.

Fully aware that the picture-perfect world doesn't exist for the majority of American families, parents who do speak of sex preference often do so with apology.

"I'm a little embarrassed to talk about this," one mother said.

"I mean, half my friends are still single, in their 30s, and some of the others can't have children, even with medical help, and here I am complaining about the sex of my healthy children."

For parents with their hearts set on a boy or girl, there has always been a rich folklore filled with advice about diets, timing of intercourse and sexual positions. None have held up under scientific scrutiny.

What hold the greatest hope for sex selection are the reports on the latest research in genetics and reproductive technology.

A technique known as sperm sorting -- with reported success rates as high as 80 percent, although there have been no controlled scientific studies -- identifies semen samples that are rich in X (female) and Y (male) chromosomes. The samples are then artificially inseminated into the woman.

Another approach, recently developed and known as preimplantation genetic diagnosis, involves removing one of eight cells from three-day-old pre-embryos and analyzing DNA for sex before embryos are implanted in a woman's uterus.

Amid continuing ethical debate, the few specialists who use this new procedure restrict it to couples who want to prevent passing along sex-linked hereditary diseases like hemophilia and Duchenne's muscular dystrophy.

There have been 11 births worldwide using this technology since it was first reported in England in 1990. In the United States the pioneering work has been done at Cornell University Medical Center in New York, which has achieved four of those births and has two pregnancies under way. Some half-dozen medical centers across the country have recently begun working with the procedure.

"I am sure the technology may one day be abused," said Dr. Jamie Grifo, assistant professor and director of the preimplantation genetic diagnosis program at Cornell, "but this isn't as simple as going to the five-and-ten and buying a boy or girl. This is a very serious, intensive, expensive procedure for couples who have a high risk of passing inherited diseases." Dr. Grifo added that he gets a lot of phone calls from people, and he tells them, "We will not do this for sex selection."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.