Did you hear that Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, who recently announced Kim’s second pregnancy, used sex-selective in vitro fertilization to get a male embryo? Apparently the duo used a procedure where doctors isolate male embryos for implantation, at a cost of $17,000 (on top of an already costly procedure).
But what if they weren’t? What if the rumors were true? They wouldn’t be the only couple to have approached fertility doctors wanting a child of a specific gender. And while the rumor might have been false, it’s reignited the debate about whether or not it is ethical to use artificial conception and fertility technology to create a custom-made baby.
Kim and Kanye’s story was only the most recent celebrity variation on a theme: Several disturbing stories about the global multi-billion dollar fertility industry have emerged in recent months. Last week brought developments in an ongoing case in which an Australian couple used an Indian woman as a surrogate and she gave birth to twins. The couple took the girl and left the boy because, they said, they already had a boy at home. Their story was reminiscent of Baby Gammy, a baby left to his Thai surrogate last year after the parents learned he had Down Syndrome. And whether it’s a story like that of the couple who tried to pay their surrogate to abort their baby because it had a harelip or the ongoing saga over the fate of Nick Loeb and actress Sofia Vergara’s frozen embryos, it’s hard to deny that the fertility industry has been suffering some seriously bad PR lately.
No doubt our obsession with celebrity fertility fuels interest in these stories and quite possibly numbs our broader moral instincts. America in particular seems unwilling to ask difficult questions about the fertility industry. Last year British Parliament voted almost unanimously to put an end to sex-selective abortion (it had outlawed sex-selective IVF long ago). By contrast, repeated attempts to ban sex-selective abortion have failed in the United States Congress, and sex-selective IVF has become an American specialty, attracting couples from around the world who want to tailor the gender balance of their families. According to some estimates, between four and six thousand such procedures happen annually, with a growing crop of doctors advertising their ability to perform sex-selective IVF. Or, as they euphemistically call it, “family balancing.”
Oddly enough, efforts to mainstream gender “family balancing” come at a time when we see more frequent claims that our society shouldn’t care about gender at all; one’s sex is entirely malleable. Kim Kardashian’s own stepfather is the current poster-child for this reasoning. Bruce Jenner’s transformation into Caitlyn Jenner was widely celebrated as the embodiment of this new post-gender world; gender is a choice, we are told, one that can be made at any point in one’s life. Critics of this idea are labeled transphobic or bigoted and dismissed.
So here we are: Kim Kardashian might have had doctors pick through her embryos to select a boy, Nick Loeb is fighting his ex over custody of their embryos, and actress Sherri Shepherd tried to abandon the baby she paid a surrogate to carry because she had a “change of heart.” Americans love to boast that ours is the land of the free and the home of the brave, and we have nearly unlimited freedom when it comes to our reproductive choices. But we are far from brave when it comes to asking the difficult ethical questions that our exercise of this freedom raises.