Reproductive Racism: Gender Selection Technologies Target Asian Communities

Article excerpt

NOBEL PRIZE-WINNING ECONOMIST AMARTYA SEN speaks of "missing women." Other experts call the phenomenon "gendercide." They refer to gender selection, a practice that is thriving in South Asian societies in the United States and abroad, thanks to new, sophisticated reproductive technologies.

"We get several calls a week from folks, especially from India and China either living here or who plan to visit, asking if we can definitely help them make a baby boy," notes a hotline operator for The Fertility Institutes in Los Angeles, one of numerous clinics that have mushroomed in the United States to cater to the growing demand for state-of-the-art reproductive technologies.

There are currently three techniques of gender selection available: pre-natal testing, pre-implantation genetic diagnoses and sperm sorting. Pre-natal testing consists of ultrasound that detects the gender of the fetus, allowing parents to abort if the fetus is of an undesired sex. The latter two techniques are more complex. With genetic diagnosing, a woman first goes through in vitro fertilization, during which her eggs are surgically extracted and fertilized outside the body. Doctors then test the embryos and implant only those of the desired gender. Originally developed for the detection of sex-linked genetic disorders, the technique is now employed in gender selection. MicroSort technology, or sperm sorting, involves literally sorting through sperm to find the sex-determining chromosome (Y for a boy and X for a girl) and then inseminating the woman with sperm that will create a baby of the desired gender.

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Gender selection technnologies are of increasing interest to an elite class that filters issues through a paradigm of choice and access. While many mainstream news reports and articles do gently hint at the ethical issues of using the technologies for non-medical purposes, the final verdict rests on each family's shoulders. Since genetic diagnosing and sperm sorting help families avoid the trauma of female infanticide and feticide that earlier, less sophisticated technologies allowed, it is a popular notion, even among some progressive members of the South Asian community. What's lacking, however, is a deeper analysis of the sexist and racist consequences of the technologies.

"It is important to have a critical discussion of the implications of reproductive technologies, especially for women of color," affirms Sujatha Jesudason of the Center for Genetics and Society, who is a veteran reproductive rights activist and community organizer. "Because if we don't, then we as a society let the market determine what is acceptable instead of challenging the current and future misuse of technology that is growing increasingly sophisticated. This is a deeply ethical and feminist issue."

Despite the formidable costs--between $18,000 and $23,000 on average--it is not uncommon for middle-class and affluent couples from India and China to visit the United States to access these technologies, which are either banned or unavailable back home.

Dubbed as the new face of reproductive tourism, many clinics encourage the practice with slick marketing strategies targeting South Asian communities. Advertisements for gender selection appear in Asia-bound in-flight magazines and increasingly in South Asian community papers. Often, the new technologies are framed in "neutral" ways (many U.S.-based institutes refer to gender selection as "family balancing"), reducing the practice to the level of the family's choice to have a baby boy or girl. …