Science seems on the verge of discoveries as perilous in a few years to human society as the perfected airplane will be.
Grace Verne Silver
THIS modern world is impatient; people want exactly what they want, when they want it. Whether it's a dress, or a can of beans, or a motor car or a baby, they expect it to come up to specifications, to be delivered when wanted. A woman does not ask for milk; she demands a special brand, from a particular breed of contented cows, fed and cared for according to rules. We want our air conditioned, our water sterilized; and we are helpless when the protective measures suddenly break down and we have to face natural hazards. We have taken so many precautions that our racial resistance is weakened. However, for better or worse the modern trend is to regulate everything- even babies!
"Birth control" is far from new or modern. In one form or another it has been part of the sex education of females of most primitive races. Often the methods have been held secret, almost sacred; again they have been forgotten for generations, only to be revived when overpopulation threatened, or in times of famine or war. Modern birth control advocates have devised simpler and less hazardous methods; but it can be doubted whether they have made their knowledge available to so large a percentage of women. For one thing, modern methods are usually too costly for the women who most need them.
In any case, birth control as we know it can do no more than regulate the number of children born. Just as important to many women, if not even more vital, is some method of regulating the sex and type of child. This is a problem which has always intrigued both parents and physicians, as well as the more primitive medicine men. It is a problem which seems very near to possible solution. Within a few years we may have definite means of knowing, even before conception, whether a boy or girl is on the order list. Most mothers will like this, I think.
If we have this knowledge, will it help or harm us? Will it be better for us, for our children, for society? Tampering with the balance of nature can do strange things, cause terrible tragedies, or result in unbelievable progress- all according to how much intelligence we have. There are those who believe that man has already progressed scientifically to the point where he is dangerous to himself; that he has made tools of destruction out of chemical and mechanical discoveries which should have been only a benefit to him. These people say that a small child cannot be trusted with a box of matches, lest it burn itself to death; that modern people must have more mass education, or they will use the great discoveries of science to destroy themselves.
Any sure method of determining the sex of unborn children will have very far-reaching results on society, as well as on the family; it is just possible we are not, as a people, wise enough to possess the right to such knowledge! But since such power of sex-determination is to become ours anyway, we may as well prepare to use it as wisely as possible.
Scientists have made great progress during the past few years. They've found that certain drugs inhaled or swallowed by the mother may cause her baby to be born deformed. They have learned that X-rays will cause fruit flies to have extra legs, chickens to have extra heads, frogs' eggs to hatch out mon strosities ; they've proved that a pin prick or a salt bath will fertilize eggs of lower creatures, causing them to hatch as imperfect, but live beings; they've counted the chromosomes supplied by both male and female human beings at conception, traced to some degree the "genes" of heredity thus supplied by the parents, and acquired from theirs; and they've found that while it takes twenty-four chromosomes, an equal number from each parent, to make a girl, twenty-three are enough for a boy.* Apparently there's always something lacking in the male, from the very start of life! Women always suspected that anyway.
They know, too that twice as many males as females die in mis* Twenty-four from each; but the paternal contribution to a male child appears to lack something from the 24th chromosome. Biologists speak of the female-bearing chromosome as an X, the male-bearing as a Y. -Editor
The day appears to be near at hand when a mother may determine in advance whether the desired infant shall be a son or a daughter. Will society give her free choice?
carriages or abortions, whether from natural or induced causes; and that, while more boy's than girls are usually born, their death rate during the first year is much higher. Mothers of large, mixed families usually say boy babies are harder to raise, more trying and also more subject to illness. Throughout life, except during the child-bearing years, the male death rate is higher, even in peace times. In old age the percentage of old women is much greater. It has been suggested that the more dangerous employment of men is partly responsible ; but this has no bearing on infancy, or on the unborn. From a biological standpoint the male seems definitely the weaker sex!
It has long been known that more boys are born during wars, famine and pestilence, when food is short and women are worn down by fear and grief ; that more boys are born in the slums than among the Well-fed ; also that certain gland actions in the mother may produce abnormal babies. It has been stated that the percentage of malformed infants is much greater in higher altitudes, in districts subject to great and sudden atmospheric changes during the mother's pregnancy. It is almost impossible to hatch hen's eggs at over 10,000 feet. Altitude and thunderstorms will radically lower the percentage of chickens in any place; they die in the shell. The human egg is possibly more sensitive than we have supposed.
Sudden atmospheric changes may alter the balance of pituitary and ovarian glands, reduce or over stimulate their secretions. Great fear may poison the blood stream with an oversupply of the gland chemical adrenalin; another cause may lower it to the danger point. It is known that a human female, or male, can have her or his characteristics greatly altered by means of gland extracts. Secretions from the male glands may make a woman partly or completely sterile; an overmasculine woman may lose her excess facial hair when treated with the female hormones which she needs. With all this preliminary groundwork, there is every reason to suppose that a woman who has the price to pay for the expert treatment and advice needed can soon arrange with certainty for either boy or girl, as desired.
Tampering with glands is possibly one of the most risky as well as most helpful of modern medical experiments. For many years it must remain more or less an experimental science; anyone who risks such an experimental regulation of offspring in the near future should realize the chance of serious mistakes. You may ask for a girl and get a boy instead ; you might also get a malformed infant-neither girl nor boy, and what would you do about that? (That could happen anyway, however.)
But let us assume the new technique is perfected, that everyone can have the sort of child wanted, when it is wanted. What then? On the whole, I think the ultimate result would be worth while; but there might be a very disagreeable transition period, while society became accustomed to the new order, while parents were getting adjusted to their new powers and responsibilities.
Birth control has made many couples postpone children till they have ceased to love each other, or become middle-aged ; then, panicky, they have a child to "save the marriage,'' which is already broken. Nature, unregulated, would have given them children while they were young and in love, to the benefit of both children and parents. But nature might have given them too many, to their injury, killed their love by illness and poverty. If parents are to replace nature by science, they must also use intelligence in place of instinct.
Couples who just want "children," who do not care greatly whether they are boys or girls, or who want a mixed family, can in most cases let nature alone. In most large families, the sexes are about evenly divided. Occasionally we hear of a family who have all girls, or all boys; couples who, already having half a dozen boys, long for at least one girl, but keep right on getting boys. In such cases it would seem fairly obvious that either one or both parents can have children only of that sex. Such couples ought to be scientifically studied for that reason. In all probability, if either happened to marry again, the next child might be the other, and wanted sex.
Some women prefer boys, think a family of boys much less trouble; often such mothers have a strong masculine trend themselves, love sports, etc.; and they really can understand and get along with boys nicely. An all-boy family is economical ; they wear each other's clothes, use each other's playthings as they are handed down the line; they can (but should not) be allowed to sleep in one room. Boys understand each other, too. But, if a sister arrives after a dozen or more years, the whole family scheme is upset. The parents want her; they like the novelty of a girl in the house after so many years of nothing but boys; likely enough the boys resent her coming.
Little sisters in a large family of older brothers are usually pretty miserable, teased and tormented and rough-housed until in self-defense they become half-boys themselves to get along at all. After the boys are twenty years old or more, sister may be a pet; till then she's regarded as a pest. When parents of five small boys suddenly acquire a girl, they usually find their expenses are just about doubled. However, even if they could control sex in advance, they would probably have the girl in preference to more boys. And, of course, if a couple plan to have only one child, it would be very important to agree on its sex beforehand.
On the other hand, if such sex control were possible and simple, many parents would prefer to alternate the sexes-a sort of family layer-cake; boy-girl, boy-girl, etc. This has the advantage of keeping a brother and sister about the same mental age. If the boy comes first, and the girl a couple years later, they will be of about the same "age" by the time the latter is six.
(To be concluded in the September issue of Sexology)