Is Prenatal Gender Preference Healthy?

By Jolie Day

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“You have 3 sisters? Your poor dad!” This is a common reaction when I tell people that my family is almost all girls. Why my “poor dad”? Do they assume he is not happy with only daughters? Is the amount of estrogen intimidating? Do they think his life would’ve been better with the grace of a son? Why is my mom left out of this? I still can’t wrap my head around the insinuated preference for male children and the overall more positive perception of what raising a male child is like in our world.

When we think of male child preference, we tend to think of countries like India and China that have been markedly fixated on the economic prospects that a male child may bring and that a female might cost. These cultural norms are perpetuated through deeply ingrained beliefs that males will be more successful and ultimately benefit the family, whereas females are seen as a liability that may eventually lead to expenses such as a dowry, which a lot of families struggle to afford. In some cases, families will even turn to breaking the law to reveal the sex of the child during pregnancy and abort female fetuses.

In the United States, although not as severe, child gender preference has implications that not only effect how children of different genders are raised within a family, but also effects the likelihood of families staying together, proving more likely if there are male children. With new technological advances, it has also become easier for parents everywhere to potentially choose the sex of their child via preimplantation genetic diagnosis and in vitro fertilization. These preferences are affecting sex ratios, perpetuating negative stigmas about the worth of women and girls, and attributing to the different treatment of girls and boys within families.

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Map of Global Son Preference and Sex Ratios

In countries across the world, it is pretty common to have a slight preference for male children. However, in some cases, this preference is taken to an extreme and it is causes an imbalance in sex ratios. Most notably, countries such as India have seen an epidemic of millions of female children being aborted or killed because of infant selective practices. Cultural beliefs that a female child is problem and a male child is a blessing elicits an extremely problematic reality that raises the mortality in girls and deepens the inequalities in sex and gender among those that live. The child may go on to be less prioritized and be disadvantaged in many ways for the rest of her life. There is also a possibility that she become malnourished in infancy because her mother weans her off breast milk early in hopes to become pregnant again with hope for a son. Her chance at receiving an education might suffer as well, as priority is given to a male child in most families. Efforts are being made to change these issues, however, and there laws and campaigns are being set forth that will help deter infant selective practices and promote a more positive perception of women and girls. Women with access to education are also far less likely to have son preferences, so it is important to invest in girl’s educations as much as it is boys.

The United States’ son preference has not changed much since the 1940’s. Men tend to prefer to have a son, while women are more likely to not show a preference either way. But neither men nor women were significantly reported to want a girl more than a boy. There are also studies that show that an unmarried biological father is more likely to claim paternity if the child is male. There is a 4% higher likelihood that a father will acknowledge paternity for a male than if the child is female. There is also a higher chance of there being a shotgun wedding for an unmarried couple if there was an ultrasound that revealed that the child is male. Child gender also effects the chances of a family deciding to have more children. If the family has all girls, the family is more likely to choose to have more children than a family with all boys. There are also effects on divorce rates that parents with girls are more likely to be divorced or separated than parents with boys.

It is apparent that child gender preferences have an effect of the way that children are raised here in the U.S. as well. Although I have never had a brother, many of my female friends who do have said at times it is completely unfair how their parents treated them differently from their brothers. I hear about how their brothers were allowed to date sooner, or weren’t reprimanded for the same things, and didn’t have to hear things like “You can’t go out in that outfit!”. What kind of message does this send girls? That they aren’t as capable to make their own decisions? Is their value less than their brothers?

It is important to reflect on these issues and work to promote equal treatment of young boys and girls, so that they may develop an equal sense of worth. When boys are given better treatment and more autonomy than girls, it leads to unequal senses of empowerment. These kinds of preferences perpetuate gender bias and double standards, and is an issue that must be addressed. We as a society should work to improve the overall treatment of women and girls and strive for more equal gender preferences in our children.

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