Last week, Britain’s Health Minister Caroline Flint announced plans to ban the brave new reproductive practice known as elective gender selection. Raising the specter of a slippery ethical slope, she warned that it could usher in a new era of gender inequality and, newspapers reported, “designer babies”.
But while the Brits were digesting this sad news—alas, they’d have to make do with their unpredictable Clives and Pollys—the story made barely a ripple across the Atlantic. In America’s high-tech baby capital, the thorny but potentially lucrative business of choosing a child’s sex was chugging away as merrily as ever.
At Dr. Norbert Gleicher’s Upper East Side fertility lair, a 32-year-old teacher and mother of three girls was seeing the first sonic images of her sex-selected boy-to-be; “I always wanted to do it after the second girl,” she said. Several blocks north, on Park Avenue and 78th Street, Dr. Masood Khatamee was schooling a couple (one of the two or three that visit him each week) in the ins and outs of gender choosing. And a controversial West Coast fertility pioneer named Dr. Jeffrey Steinberg was finishing a license application to open up his first satellite office in the heart of Manhattan’s Baby Belt.
“Everybody’s saying, ‘Open in New York, open in New York!’” said Dr. Steinberg, who already runs clinics in Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Guadalajara, and who estimates that from 5 to 10 percent of his sex-selection patients come from New York. “We’ve had a huge demand from Europe, and there’s a lot from New York … a lot from the Upper East Side and quite a few from Queens.
“It’s about convenience for the patients,” he said.
But it is also about this strange moment in which the odd, inexplicable and historically futile desire to order up a boy-tyke or a girl-chick has come face to face with technology, psychology and radical à la carte culture. And given the aggressive fertility of New York’s breeding set, it was only a matter of time before the joys of elective sex-selection took root in the Land of Milk and Bugaboos, the epicenter of the Gen-X/Y baby boomlet, New York City. (Though it should also be emphasized that it’s still decently infrequent.)
“I definitely hear more New Yorkers talking about it than I hear my girlfriends [back home],” said a Manhattan-based fashion designer, who was determined to gender-select her way to a daughter but ultimately bowed to her freaked-out husband’s wishes that they leave it up to good old-fashioned chance. “Because here, you kind of look at things and think, ‘O.K., what are my options? Well, yeah, I really want to have a girl, so I’m going to have a girl.’”
(And hold the tomato, bun and fries!)
No, New Yorkers are not like other sex selectors. They are “very motivated,” said Dr. Steinberg. And, as a rule, they are quicker to pull the gender trigger than their national counterparts. While “the average person that walks in here has five boys and wants a girl,” he said, “New York couples have maybe one girl and want a boy, or one boy and want a girl.” Many of them are attorneys, he added.
For such gender-directed parents, the world of science offers two techniques for getting the girl baby or boy baby of their “gender dreams,” as one mom said. The first and somewhat simpler method is called MicroSort, or “spinning” and “sorting” in the gender-selection vernacular, which works by separating X-chromosome-bearing sperm from Y-chromosome-bearing sperm. Couples who want a boy have an 84 percent chance of striking gold, while couples jonesing for a girl have a 91.5 percent chance, based on current clinical trial data. And all for the low, low price of $3,400 a sort (not including other costs).
“This actually was like a two-year process,” said Jennifer Merrill Thompson, a “MicroSort Mom” and author of the how-to memoir Chasing the Gender Dream, who went through five “sorts” before getting pregnant with her daughter. “So we used savings and inheritance and put it on our credit card. But it was worth it to me.”
For couples who don’t mind shelling out even more money—or walking an even fuzzier ethical line— to jack up their gender odds, there is now also a process called pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, or P.G.D., which guarantees close to a 100 percent success rate and works much the same way that in vitro fertilization does, except that before the fertilized embryo is implanted, one of the cells is peeled away for genetic testing. Then, depending on the couple’s gender “preference,” the embryo is either planted in the waiting mother’s womb or, well, frozen, donated or destroyed. The whole bangless shebang costs in the range of $17,000 to $20,000 per cycle.
This is not exactly how P.G.D. and MicroSort were first meant to be used. In the early to mid-1990’s, when the techniques first came on the fertility scene, they were meant only for medical purposes, to minimize a couple’s chance of giving birth to a child with a severe X-chromosome-linked disease, like fragile X syndrome or Duchenne muscular dystrophy (and many still rely on it for this purpose). But technology is by nature promiscuous—it will hop into bed with anyone—and it wasn’t long before doctors and couples began eyeing sex selection as an end in itself: sex selection for sex selection’s sake. They even gave it a folksy name—“family balancing”—and came to the tacit consensus that if a couple already had at least one child and wanted another of the opposite gender on the second or third go-round, then that was O.K., just another social desire: all part of humankind’s search for balance. Call it reproductive feng shui.
“We have a criteria, and that is that we don’t offer gender selection to a couple for the first time. They have to have one or the other gender of child. This assures that the natural balance between the sexes is not disturbed,” said Dr. Khatamee, the executive director of the Fertility Research Foundation.
But a few doctors don’t observe the one- or two-child rule anymore, and some couples are not in it for “balance.” Some just want a child of a certain gender, and they have always wanted that gender, and they want it with a feral, unflagging, Veruca Salt intensity.
Dr. Steinberg, for example, has no problem with gender selecting for first-time parents. “To some couples,” he said, “the drive to get the gender that they’re after is just as strong as the drive in fertile couples to make sure they don’t have a genetically abnormal baby.”
TO SAMPLE THE FULL, PUNGENT MADNESS of some couples’ drives, all one needs to do is spend a few minutes on one of the “gender determination” message boards that have sprouted up across the Internet like Clomid-induced ova. There, one encounters would-be parents—women, really—in the throes of a crazed quest for the “balanced family of their dreams,” as a poster named Leslie (four sons, one MicroSort daughter) put it. Masquerading under the anonymity of handles like wannaboysoon, itsgirltime and ponytail_dreams, they chronicle their every high- and low-tech gender-selection attempt, complete with exclamation points, emoticons and an explosion of message-board slang (BD for “baby-dance” or sex, DH for “dear husband,” DD for “dear daughter,” CD for “cycle day” and so on).
“We BD’d CD’s 5, 8, 11, 13, 15, with 17 being the last … ,” wrote seekingdaughter, an iVillage gender-determination poster, after listing off the seven supplements she had taken to enhance her low-tech girl-quest. “On the last BD I took Sudafed a couple of hours before and used a lime water douche, DH did missionary position with shallow penetration. I hope all of this gets me my long awaited DD!!”
In sex-selector-land, there is apparently no such thing as TMI.
Ms. Thompson, for instance, readily acknowledges that she spent “a couple of years” in a daughter-jonesing frenzy, trawling message boards, tracking her cycles, devouring information. “It was an obsession,” she said. “Especially as friends and family members were having little girls, it was just hard for me to not be able to shop in the girls’ section of the store for my own children.”
Alas, shopping preferences were an all-too-common theme among moms who spoke with The Observer or posted their secret gender fantasies on message boards. So was the color pink, which, appearances of cultural progress aside, still stands as the national symbol of female offspring.
Yes, XX is in these days, despite the understandable concern—and predictions—that sex selection might be used in the U.S. to reinforce gender inequality, as it has in China and India. (What all this means for the broader subject of gender identity is another matter.) Several doctors who spoke with The Observer said that initial sex-selection breakdowns seemed to be 50-50, while MicroSort’s scientific director, David Karabinus, said that girls thus far outpaced boys in the trial by three to one. The Manhattan fashion designer who strongly considered “sorting” said that her four sex-selecting friends had all opted for daughters. “Most people that are doing it want girls,” she said.
The relative preference for daughters over sons is a matter of some mystery. Maybe, one doctor suggested, it is because MicroSort is more effective at producing girls than boys, so boy-bearers stay away; or maybe it’s because women are driving the movement right now, and women want girls.
These women want girls for pseudo-Steinem-like reasons, like bringing up “strong, independent” lasses. And they want girls for Betty Crocker reasons, like dressing them up, taking them to the ballet and having a playmate. And, either way, many want girls so they can have their own Mini-Me projections of themselves.
“I am trying not to favor her,” said Ms. Thompson of her 4-year-old daughter. “But … I feel like she likes more of the same things I like, and we have more in common than I might have with one of my boys.”
For Joy, another MicroSort Mom, it all came down to her relationship with her own mom. “I was very close with her, and then she passed away. So most of the people who know me are like, ‘You’re completely trying to replace the relationship with your mother,’” she said. “And maybe they’re right—but I have the money, so I’m going to do it.”
THE FIRST MICROSORT BABY, JESSICA COLLINS, WAS BORN in 1996 (yes, another Baby Jessica); P.G.D. for family balancing arrived several years later; and, for a time, most serious doctors wouldn’t touch these treatments. But in recent years, fertility alchemists across the city have quietly begun granting would-be parents’ wishes for little bundles of pink or blue joy. The numbers aren’t exactly trend-level, but they are bigger than your average fertility naif might think, since many sex-selecting docs prefer to keep their wand-waving on the down-low.
“There are quite a number of programs doing this in the city,” said Dr. Gleicher, of the Centers for Human Development, who has been selectively storking boys and girls for around three years and estimates that about 5 percent of his practice comes from sex selection. “Most of them are not talking about it and may not even acknowledge they are doing it. But I would say many of the programs do it under certain circumstances.”
Even renowned clinics like New York University’s Fertility Center and Mount Sinai’s Reproductive Medicine Associates (R.M.A.), the Ritz-Carltons of the assisted-reproduction world, have recently added, within the last six to 12 months, elective sex selection to their menu of offerings, under certain strict conditions. They won’t offer it for first children, and they generally insist that the couple must already be undergoing I.V.F. But if the couple is doing I.V.F. and they have at least one child—well, the doctor might throw sex selection into the package.
“We do get family-balancing-type stuff—you know, ‘We have two girls, we want a boy,’ or ‘We have a boy, we want a girl; we’re only going to have one more kid,’“ said Dr. James Grifo, the program director of N.Y.U.’s Fertility Center, adding that they answer these relatively rare requests on a case-by-case basis. “And certainly for someone doing I.V.F., I don’t really see any problem with it. For someone who doesn’t need I.V.F., it becomes a little more complicated.”
Or perhaps a lot more complicated.
“I have a difficult time ethically suggesting that patients have to put themselves through very complex and interventional procedures … to balance their family. I mean, there’s nothing unbalanced about having two girls or two boys,” said R.M.A.’s Dr. Benjamin Sandler. But, he also added, “if they’re already going through all the intervention already, who are we to tell them, if the technology exists, that we can’t do it?”
The ethics of gender selection are certainly messy, a Wild West of interpretations and practices. The American Society of Reproductive Medicine has taken a hands-off position towards elective sex selection, refusing to endorse it as ethical but not going so far as to condemn it, either. At the same time, the very idea of gender choosing gives plenty of people the willies, conjuring up creepy images of Francis Galton–inspired über-babies.
Not surprisingly, many sex-selecting docs hop into defensive mode at such comparisons. “It’s not your right or my right to decide what’s right for somebody else,” said Dr. Grifo. “People should be able to make their own decision, certainly in a democracy.”
Besides, other doctors argue, they are not actually making girl and boy babies—they’re not playing with nature, they’re just watching it. And they do screen couples carefully to make sure those couples aren’t completely bonky, that they don’t have “unrealistic expectations,” as Dr. Steinberg put it.
“It’s funny—this week I turned down two people,” the fertility doctor said. “I had one couple that wanted triplet boys and nothing else. I mean, totally crazy. So we booted them. And I had another couple that was unhappy with a teenage daughter and wanted to have a new girl that would be better. So we booted them too.”
Dr. Steinberg added, “It was really weird.”
Howard and the Hiltons
“As you know, Beth has become the queen of the Hamptons. I don’t know how many of you realize that,” said Howard Stern on Saturday night, referring to his ladylove, Beth Ostrosky. This was in Wainscott, at the Star Room. “She lights up any room that she’s in, and she’s very warm and generous to all her friends, and she has a million great qualities—she really does.”
“You know, when I first met Beth, Beth called her mother and she said, ‘Hey I met this great guy and he’s famous.’” Mr. Stern may have been a little tipsy. “Her mother goes, ‘Who is it? Brad Pitt or Mel Gibson?’ She goes, ‘No, Howard Stern,’ and her mother hung up on her and didn’t speak to her for two weeks.”
O.K., he was on a roll. “Britney Spears oughta put her clothes back on,” Mr. Stern said. “Now, Britney Spears three years ago nude would have turned somebody on. My mother looks better in a pair of panties.
“Suri Cruise,” he said, “is in Jason’s basement.” He meant Jason Binn, the C.E.O. of the company that publishes Hamptons mag, who was throwing the party; and that was also the magazine that had put Ms. Ostrosky on its cover this month. In the magazine, the cover star gives her endorsement to local club Saracen, which, by the way, was totally hopping that night.
“He took a magazine full of pictures,” Mr. Stern said of Mr. Binn, “and made it into a multibillion-dollar empire.”
“We were all devastated,” Mr. Stern said, “to hear that Christy Brinkley is now on her fourth divorce. You have no idea—I think she’s a great woman—I think she’s going to find true love the fifth time around. I think with Kid Rock.”
Valet parking at the Star Room costs $30. “Welcome to the Hamptons,” said the snooty valet.
There came pretty Kathy Hilton. “I’ve done Howard’s show, and that was quite an interesting adventure,” Ms. Hilton said. “She’s very pretty and I think it’s great that she’s giving back to the community, and so I’m thrilled to be here for Hamptons magazine and Jason and Beth.” Ms. Hilton’s unfamous carpet companion made a bit of a faux pas; she exposed her right breast when her wrap dress failed to cooperate. Mr. Stern missed it.
“I’m very proud, a very upbeat Kathy,” Ms. Hilton said, regarding a new single by her daughter, a girl named Paris Hilton. “I was kind of like, ‘All right, well, what’s this going to be all about,’ and I was driving down Sunset Boulevard, turned right on Rodeo and I heard the song, and I went, ‘Oh my God, this is great!’ Rick and I were going to meet for lunch, and I was just so proud.”
“I think I’ll have to send her some Paris Perfume,” Ms. Hilton said, meaning a gift to Ms. Ostrosky.
Russell Simmons arrived shortly after, darting through the bottle-service line to avoid the press. “He doesn’t want to do any press—I tried,” whispered a publicist. “He’s having a thing with Kimora.”
At the end of the party, there went Russell Simmons, and anchorwoman Rosanna Scotto, and Inside the Actors Studio guy James Lipton. Ms. Scotto said it was past her bedtime. So did Mr. Stern. “This is the latest I’ve been up in a really long time,” he said.
“BMW S.U.V.?” called a valet. Short Mr. Lipton, squeezed in a vest, claimed his big car.
The Week in Moby
Where has Moby been this week gone by? On Thursday, he hit the Midsummer Night party—and earlier that evening, he showed up in the amphitheater of East River Park. There, an odd group of policy wonks and locals celebrated the Coastal Marine Resource Center’s contribution to, understandably enough, coastlines.
Those guests who did not know where the park was located were picked up on Delancey Street and driven to the event via the suitably eco-friendly Toyota Prius.
Kieishsha Garnes, the manager of the skinny river-hugging park, was wheeled out. Guests should “take a walk through the park,” she said. “It’s a long walk, but it’s O.K.” Then there was an hour of speeches.
During the panegyrics, “gifts” were bestowed upon former U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy members Lillian Borrone and Vice Admiral Paul Gaffney. They were not present. Also, the commission is no longer present, as it submitted its final report and promptly disbanded, almost exactly a year before Hurricane Katrina. That final report, An Ocean Blueprint for the 21st Century, has a great section in Chapter 10 called “New Orleans at Risk.” Too little, too soon! Or something.
Onstage, the head of CMRC, Joel Banslaben, thanked Moby for coming and then passed him an envelope. “I’ve always wanted a white paper envelope,” Moby said. O.K., so he felt better when he found out he’d been given, for no discernable reason, a thank-you skateboard as well. “This is fantastic, and maybe later everyone can watch me break my neck,” said Moby.
Tony MacDonald, the director of the Urban Coast Institute, stood in for Vice Admiral Gaffney. He closed the proceedings by poignantly quoting from what he thought was some of Moby’s work. “Dude, I didn’t write that song,” Moby said. Then Moby played a set with ecologically concerned songwriter Laura Dawn and her husband, Daron Murphy, who played the mouth organ. What does Moby think of the CMRC’s agenda? He dreams of a day when, “at some point, people will be able to swim in the East River.” You first, buddy.