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Sidestepping a trap: a commentary on ‘why parents should not be told the sex of their fetus’
  1. Emily W Kane
  1. Correspondence to Dr Emily W Kane, Department of Sociology, Bates College, Lewiston, Maine, 04240, USA; ekane{at}bates.edu

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Sociologists and psychologists interested in gender socialisation and the social construction of gender have paid significant attention to the way parental behaviours and beliefs shape children's gender. But little attention has been paid to the way those processes begin even before birth. In her provocative and insightful article, Browne1 argues that such prebirth gendering is one of a multitude of reasons that parents should not be told the sex of their fetus even when medical professionals have determined it through Non-Invasive Prenatal Testing (NIPT) or any of a range of other prenatal tests. As a sociologist who has studied parental gendering, including what I refer to as the consequences of prebirth ‘gendered anticipation’, I consider Browne's argument a welcome and compelling one. I have written about this process in a 2012 book titled The Gender Trap: Parents and the Pitfalls of Raising Boys and Girls.2 I conceptualise the gender trap as “a set of expectations and structures that inhibit social change and stall many parents’ best intentions for loosening the limits that gender can impose upon us” (ref. 2, p. 3). And I argue that parental trap begins even before a child's birth. My interview data document that “on the relatively frictionless plane of imagination, parents from all backgrounds expressed a strikingly consistent narrative of traditionally gendered offspring,” and “assumed that their children's interests and tendencies would be determined by whether they were male or female” (ref. 2, p. 28). As I go on to claim, “gendered anticipation contributes to parents’ motivation to reinforce gender for their newly arrived children” and “there is clearly potential for this gendered anticipation to become a trap that parents may not even realize they are falling into” (ref. 2, p. 30). This becomes the first step in a road littered with ‘gender traps’, even for parents who are actively trying to avoid reproducing gendered constraints with and for their children. In Browne's article, we see a policy proposal that would sidestep that first gender trap, and thus chip away productively at the vast network of social processes that constrain children and conflate sex with gender.

Only after the book came out did I learn about a relatively new social phenomenon, referred to in the USA as ‘gender reveal parties’. At these events, expectant parents gather friends and family around them to reveal the ‘gender’ of their yet-to-be-born child based on prenatal testing. As Browne compellingly argues, it is more reasonable to say it is the sex those parents are revealing, and even that ‘fact’ is far more complex than everyday usage of the term suggests. In the process of staging elaborate parties focused on celebrating the unborn child's sex, these parents and their invited guests are engaged in the social construction of the sex and gender binaries that Browne criticises as misinformed. At one level, such parties may sound like a trivial phenomenon, an inconsequential excuse for people to celebrate the joy of pregnancy and affirm their commitment to the new family member coming soon. But in all of the ways Browne lays out, the fact that is revealed and the process of making sense of it are reaffirmations of a fundamentally problematic analysis with real implications for what she calls “sexism via gender essentialism, which is neither in the interests of the future child or society.” The kinds of constraints constructed at and through a gender reveal party are joined, of course, by even more brutal constraints that Browne considers in her article, from prenatal sex selection to differing prenatal care based on fetal sex.

Many of the same social processes will kick into gear at the moment of birth, when the sex is announced, and I have documented a range of such processes in my work.2 But Browne's proposal delays that moment by refusing parents information about fetal sex during pregnancy, which she considers justified “in principle (due to the misinformation it provides to parents) and in practice (due to the harmful consequences it promotes for children and society)”. And I believe what she refers to as the “indignation of parents at not knowing fetal sex” could become the foundation for valuable education that would help deconstruct gender essentialism. As Risman (ref. 3, p. 435) has shown, “Change is fluid and reverberates throughout the (gender) structure dynamically”. Differentiating the individual, interactional and institutional levels as three separate but connected dimensions at which gender is socially constructed and can be reconstructed or deconstructed, she argues that changes in institutional-level practices (including policy proposals of the sort Browne advocates) “reverberate at the level of cultural expectations and even identities. And the cycle of change continues”.

For all of these reasons, I find Browne's argument compelling and her policy proposal both provocative and productive. But as a sociologist, I am less able to comment on the ethics or feasibility of withholding this kind of (mis)information once medical professionals have it. I leave it to medical ethicists and healthcare providers to argue the feasibility of such withholding in various national and regulatory contexts, while concurring with Browne that the social good, as well as the interests of individual children, would be served by disrupting the gendered anticipation prenatal sex information encourages, and sidestepping at least the first of many gendered traps parents and their children confront.

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Footnotes

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Commissioned; internally peer reviewed.

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