The Times

Sunday 25 July 1999

They fight less, do better at school and are less likely to get into trouble: are baby girls now what parents hope for, rather than boys? Judith O'Reilly and Lois Jones report on changing social attitudes and scientific advances in gender selection

Sitting pretty: daughters are the increasing preference of would-be parents, and the medical world could soon help them choose their baby's sex


The Sunday Times

Compared with deciding on a name, the question of sex is easy. A baby is either going to be a boy or a girl, and many people secretly have an instinctive preference.

When Linda Davies, a public relations consultant in London, became pregnant last year she was reluctant to divulge her hopes, but now admits she wished for a daughter all along.

"You always have a daughter, but you can lose a son," she said. "Boys get married and leave their mothers, while daughters grow closer to their mothers as they grow up."

Her husband, Grant Clark, a sports editor with the publisher Bloomberg, had also set his heart on a girl.

"I grew up with two brothers, so I know how nasty little boys can be," he said. "I haven't got a sister, so I think little girls are wonderful."

When Linda had an ultra-sound scan the couple resisted any temptation to try to spot the baby's sex. Eleven weeks ago, nature provided the answer. "It was an amazing moment when the nurses popped her on me and told me, 'It's a girl,' " said Linda. "I said to Grant, 'You've got the girl you wanted.' " Amy, their daughter, is thriving.

Jackie Gallacher, 38, also wanted a girl when she had

Jasmin two years ago. The mother of two boys, she believes girls are more independent and more capable of amusing themselves. "The thing about boys is that they're more difficult to bring up," she said.

In her experience little Johnnies are likely to be more boisterous, noisy and aggressive than little Josephines.

Gallacher and Davies are evidence of what some believe is a growing social trend - the preference of would-be parents for daughters.

"The sun is setting on sons these days," wrote Allison Pearson, writer and mother, in a recent issue of the magazine Having a Baby. "Girls are hot, girls are desirable, girls are the future. Holy mother, girls are the new boys."

Pearson, pregnant again, admits she would rather like a boy, but maintains that the days of parents taking pride in a son and heir are over. In antenatal classes and maternity wards across the land, she detects "an almost panicky craving for girls".

The rise of baby girl power, it appears, reflects the gender revolution of the time.

Once only boys would do. They hunted, gathered, fought, inherited and (they hoped) impregnated their wives with chips off the old block. Now, the theory goes, boys can't spell, drop out of school, get into trouble and have lost the plot about how to be fathers. Girls have bloomed in their place.

"Many of the reasons why girls used to be unacceptable to society no longer exist," said Dorothy Einon, child psychologist at University College, London. "In addition, they are not usually going to be involved in crime or violence, they are still much less likely to die from an accident or illness, and the potential for heartbreak is much less these days."

Economic and social attitudes have been transformed. Girls no longer have to be married off at great expense. Parents, points out Einon, are no longer worried about their reputations being besmirched by unmarried daughters becoming pregnant. Where once mother and fathers fretted about who would marry their daughters, now they wonder how their sons will cope in a world where traditional roles have blurred.

The result, says Sue Jacob, of the Royal College of Midwives, is that mothers, in particular, seem increasingly inclined to girls.

"Women believe their daughters have more opportunities, more financial independence and can control their own fertility these days," she said. "They are no longer dependent on men and mothers like the idea of building up a relationship with a daughter. They love their sons, but in a different way."

Any desire for baby girls remains just wishful thinking while nature is the arbiter of birth. But scientists are fast catching up. Professor Ian Craft, of the London Gynaecology and Fertility Centre, who admits he would have liked to have a daughter, believes that, when the technology becomes available, parents will not hesitate to select the sex of their children.

"If kits could be made with an agent that you mixed with a semen sample, which could guarantee the result you wanted, I can't believe anyone would outlaw it," he said. "And of course, people would buy it."

Exactly how to manipulate gender selection reliably remains uncertain, but it has progressed beyond the old wives' tales that sex in the evening helps produce boys and sex in the morning girls.

A baby's gender is determined by the father's sperm. Each man produces two types of sperm - those carrying the X or female chromosome, and those that carry the Y or male chromosome. By separating the two, some scientists attempt to enable parents to select the child of their choice.

In America, gender selection is becoming popular. Vets are introducing it for farmers who would prefer more cows to bulls; now people are seeking the same convenience. The Genetics-IVF Institute in Fairfax, Virginia, deploys a technique that involves dyeing sperm to sort out the "male" from the "female". The institute claims a success rate of about 90% for couples wanting girls and 70% for those wanting boys.

But British experts, such as Lord Winston, the leading practitioner of IVF, remain sceptical of the technique's effectiveness and are concerned that the dye could harm the sperm's DNA.

The acceptability of "designer" babies, however, is emerging in Britain, too. The London Gender Clinic in Hendon, north London, offers a similar "sperm sorting" service and Dr Peter Liu, its director, says that European couples tend to want girls, whereas Asians and those from the Middle East want boys. "It is the wives who tend to be more interested and who want a daughter, so that when she grows up she is a companion," he said.

However, the only scientific sex selection approved by the Department of Health is one involved in IVF treatment on an embryo outside the body for medical reasons. Sex selection on social grounds is banned in IVF clinics.

Where does that leave the present rash of prospective parents hoping to play god? They could resort to the technique of 18th-century French nobles, who used to bind their left testicles if they wanted a boy, though there is no reason to think it would work.

Or they could keep an eye open for a cold snap in the weather. A German researcher last week revealed a detailed study correlating the gender of babies with temperature. According to Dr Alexander Lerchl, of the University of Munster, more boys are conceived after heatwaves and more girls after cold spells. He based his findings on a study of the average monthly temperatures in Germany between 1946 and 1995, comparing them with the sex of babies born nine months later.

Why should heatwaves equal more boys? Temperature may affect biological functions, or it may be that, during warmer spells, people grow more amorous - and more frequent sex may favour the conception of boys. Sperm carrying the male Y chromosome are thought to swim faster but to die quicker than those carrying the female X chromosome. If the sperm have to wait a long time for ovulation, the female version is more likely to prevail.

All is not lost for the poor boys. There are still men who want enough sons for a football team and other parents who believe the emphasis on girls is an unwelcome, damaging fad. Chris Taggart, editor of Junior, a lifestyle magazine for parents, regularly receives letters from parents of sons saying they feel boys are being unfairly attacked. "Parents are telling us it is good having a boy, but everyone else is saying it's a nightmare," said Taggart, who has a two-year-old son. "We really should not get into the situation where it's bad to have a boy."

He believes families are being overly influenced by reports of under-achieving boys who now lag behind girls in educational attainments in virtually every subject except maths and science. "We are in flux and people are focusing on the negatives, like a lack of motivation and underperformance, but when you have a boy you don't see trhe way they are as negative."

Jil Bellman, a freelance art director with a 16-week-old son, Piers, is among those for whom boys have not lost their appeal. They are more fun, she says, more energetic and mischievous. "I've got a lot of male friends and I grew up with two elder brothers. Boys are black and white - you know where you are with them. There are no grey areas as there can be with girls," she said. "Also, Piers is the end of the line - he's the last of the Bellmans. I know it's a bit traditional, but it's good to carry on a family's name."

Others are more critical of a society that appears to be replacing discrimination against girls with discrimination against boys. "I think this preference thing is absolutely tragic. It's awful, it's like the Chinese killing babies," said David Thomas, author of Not Guilty: In Defence of Modern Man. "Sexism has just been reversed. Young girls are perceived as a more desirable item - they're a BMW, not a Ford Escort. We live in a time of obsessive consumer choice and have the perception that we have to have the best; we want the best baby."

Thomas predicts that parents setting their hopes on girl babies believing the future will favour the female are likely to be disappointed. "You can never anticipate the experience of parenthood," he said. "Everyone thinks

little girls are easier - but that's an illusion, and I can speak here from personal experience."

Men, indeed, may be doing rather better than they realise. Though the birthrate for boys is higher than that for girls, at 1,051 to every 1,000 girls, women still outnumber men in the general population.

Men tend to die younger. They are, however, now catching up in longevity. New figures show middle-class men are living longer and narrowing the gap in life expectancy with middle-class women. In 1980, a typical 35-year-old man could expect to live until he was 80. A 35-year-old man now could expect to live to 85. For a 35-year-old woman, life expectancy has increased from 84 to 88 years.

Ultimately, of course, it is health, not sex, that matters. To midwives like Mary Cronk that is clear from the reaction of new mothers. "Women can be reluctant to admit their secret desire, almost as if they are hedging their bets. But whatever happens, you want what you get," she said.

"I may have secretly dreamt of a little girl with black curly hair but, when I had my little boy with straight fair hair, that was exactly what I wanted."

Copyright 1999, Times Newspapers Ltd.