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School of Applied Social Sciences

SASS Staff

Publication details for Professor Sarah Banks

Scully, J.L., Banks, S. & Shakespeare, T. (2006). Chance, choice and control: Lay debate on prenatal social sex selection. Social Science and Medicine 63(1): 21-31.

Author(s) from Durham


Assisted reproductive technologies are typically positioned as increasing the range of choices open to the healthcare consumer, thereby enhancing ‘reproductive freedom’. In this paper, we question the equivalence of reproductive choice and personal freedom in ethical theory, using results from a project investigating how lay people make ethical evaluations about the new genetic and reproductive technologies. We took the topic of social sex selection by preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), and used group discussions and interviews in the north-east of England to trace how lay people develop and express their ethical evaluations, and to identify the implicit or explicit normative framework that gave rise to their opinions on prenatal sex selection. There was a striking level of ambivalence towards choice in general and reproductive choice in particular. Participants offered few positive statements and numerous reasons why reproductive choice might be problematic. Our participants’ argumentation shares with mainstream bioethical analysis the weighing of the possible harms of prenatal sex selection for social reasons against the harm of restricting reproductive freedom. However, unlike most secular–liberal bioethicists, many of our participants concluded that prenatal sex selection is undesirable because it is an expression of parental preference instead of a response to the future child's need. Our interpretation of their reasoning is that they work from an ideal of “good parents”, one of the features of which is the relinquishing of control over their children, except to protect them from harm. This voluntary self-limitation does not indicate reduced autonomy, because parental autonomy can only operate within the limits set by this relational framework. We suggest that a model of relational autonomy captures our lay participants’ framing of the problem better than a more traditional understanding of autonomy. Our study also shows that in appropriately structured discussion of bioethical issues, lay people can articulate reasons for their opinions that are grounded in sophisticated and morally relevant concepts.