08/14/2011 10:34 am ET Updated Oct 14, 2011

Gender Selection and Abortion: Making an Ethical Decision

Over the past few days, several news stories and ads have called attention to the commercial availability of pregnancy tests that reveal the sex of the fetus at seven weeks. After pausing to applaud this scientific know-how, the public should ask why people would want this information to begin with. Perhaps it is so they can paint the bedroom pink or blue. Or maybe it's to give them a head start on purchasing the new clothes they'll need. But the main reason a pregnant woman would want to know about the gender of her fetus after only seven weeks of pregnancy is that abortion is a much more viable option during the first trimester. These new tests usher in possibilities that have not existed until recently. Along with this scientific advancement come brand-new ethical concerns about both the commercial availability of the test kit and about the choices that women are now invited to make.

Those of us who believe in a woman's right to choose expect that women will usually make sound moral choices about whether or not to seek an abortion. But making sound moral decisions doesn't occur in a vacuum. In order to choose ethically, women -- and often their partners -- need to be able to carefully consider what they want to do in the context of knowledge of their alternatives as well as careful thinking about the implications of their decisions. Still, we need to recognize that advertising and marketing, with their subtle and manipulative emotional appeals, can affect people's choices, often in ways that have serious consequences.

As a Jewish ethicist, I believe that women should limit the situations in which they have an abortion to those where the live birth of the child will have a major adverse effect. Within this category are cases where there are serious, irremediable abnormalities in the fetus such as Tay-Sachs disease or hydrocephalus that go undetected in utero until extensive and permanent brain damage results.* In these cases abortion is in the interest of the fetus, the mother and everyone else concerned, including society, which would otherwise have to absorb the substantial cost of medical care in a situation where there is absolutely no hope that the child might have a good life. An abortion would also often be ethical in situations where the fetus poses a serious threat to the physical or mental health of the mother or threatens to destabilize a family.

However, one would be hard-pressed to prove that the gender of a fetus meets these criteria. Choices about whether to have a son or a daughter are a matter of preference, an aesthetic choice. While Jewish ethics does not consider a fetus to have the same moral worth as a living human being, a fetus nonetheless does have real moral worth and ought not be interfered with unless the reasons to do so are morally substantial, which aesthetic choices are not.

Furthermore, disturbing nature's course can have unfortunate social implications. In China and India, where abortion on the basis of sex has substantially raised the percentage of boys and men, it is impossible for many of the men who wish to marry to find partners. This is creating an unhappy situation for many men, and it may have an impact on destabilizing these countries over time. Using abortion to shape families or society can have disastrous unforeseen consequences. This is another reason to discourage selective abortion based on the sex of the fetus.

As we have seen with pharmaceutical treatments of sexual dysfunction, the availability of new products often results in "a new normal," where people develop expectations they did not have before and respond by attempting to meet those expectations. That is precisely what the marketers of these products hope for. The same may become true for sexual selection of fetuses despite the major ethical problems it raises. Those of us who see sexual selection as a problem should be speaking out, whether the basis for our objections is secular or religious.

Such problems are formidable in America in part because over the years the moral discourse in the public square has eroded and the power of marketing has grown rapidly. One of the antidotes to this problem is empowering people to discuss their values and norms and then apply them to the issues before us. In a previous column, I wrote about my forthcoming book -- "A Guide to Jewish Practice: Everyday Living" -- which deals with bioethics and family ethics, spiritual practices and speech ethics, methods of decision making, business ethics and social justice. A major impetus for my new Guide is to spur the kind of thinking that will help women and their partners make sound decisions about abortion. It is my hope that men and women of childbearing age and beyond become engaged with the complex ethical ramifications of gender selection and take this discussion into the public square. Gender testing goes well beyond pink or blue booties; it encourages unjustified abortion. The multiple issues it raises should give pause to everyone involved with this new product, from the manufacturers, to the marketing professionals, to those involved in distribution and sales. The public should engage this issue passionately. It is not yet too late to reclaim our moral fiber.

*UPDATE: This blog post was updated after publication to clarify the author's meaning in regards to specific cases of Hydrocephalus.