Q. I know a family with five girls who would dearly love to have a boy. I believe it is scientifically possible to select a baby’s gender, but would Jewish law approve?
A. There is much material about conception and pregnancy in the Talmud (e.g. Yevamot 12a-b) and discussion about how a couple can ensure (without medical intervention) that their child will be of a particular gender (see J David Bleich, “Judaism and Healing: Halakhic Perspectives”, 1981, p. 111). Thus your question was already on the halachic agenda hundreds of years ago, though there may be some medical doubt about the method described by the rabbis.
The general halachic principle is, however, that marital life should occur naturally, and whatever child is born it must be welcomed and loved. Nonetheless the halachah does not automatically rule out the sophisticated scientific techniques that are available today for use in appropriate cases. (See the article entitled “Genetic Screening and Pre-Implantation Sex Selection in Halakhah” by Richard V Grazi and Joel B Wolowelsky in “Le’ela”, issue 36, 1993.)
The issue is really what is appropriate from the moral point of view. Chief Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits was gravely concerned that “babies on demand” almost sounded like a Nazi nightmare – creating, for example, tall, strong, blond children who would repopulate the nation and its troops, strengthen the party and eliminate “undesirables”. In view of the moral dangers, then, how can medical science, and society, allow prospective parents to formulate and implement a “wish list” when conceiving a baby?
Lord Jakobovits wrote, “There is no moral objection in principle to genetic engineering or manipulation” (“In Vitro Fertilisation and Genetic Engineering”, a report prepared in 1984 for the Warnock Committee set up by the UK Department of Health). He insisted that the real issue is that of motivation:
“In all… operations on human genes, the critical difference is between ‘improving’ nature and correcting it (or between positive and negative eugenics). The elimination of any abnormality or defect to ensure the health of children to be born is morally no different from any other medical or surgical intervention to overcome nature’s disabilities. Such acts of healing, whether performed on organs, limbs or genes, are included in the Biblical sanction or dispensation granted to doctors. But this licence does not cover acts of intervention of nature lacking therapeutic justification.”
“Therapeutic justification” includes helping couples who have fertility problems or who are desperate to prevent genetic diseases, and would halachically be a better solution than to wait until the woman is already pregnant and then talk about an abortion, which is a problematical subject in halachah.
On the other hand, if the motivation is social, including the deliberate creation of embryos in order to harvest their parts, Judaism is wary. The Yiddish saying is, “Every child brings its own blessing into the world”; children should be loved and valued for themselves and not as a source of spare parts.
Some, but not all, halachic authorities permit sex selection. Others regard it as almost a frivolous consideration, especially in cultures which believe that having a boy confers status and is a matter of pride. Every case must be viewed on its own merits.