This seems to bother many people – not the “expecting a baby” part of things, but the “we do not know the baby’s sex” part.
Dozens of people have asked me how I expect to shop for baby clothes without knowing whether we’re having a boy or a girl. At one fancy cocktail party, one fancy lady was shocked – shocked! – that people still have “surprise babies.”
“But how will you know what color to paint the nursery?” she asked.
In the culture at large, there is something of an obsession with learning the sex of babies in the womb, a fascination that can get pretty creepy and overdone. Some parents are having what they call “sex parties,” where they reveal the sex of their baby in some cutesy way. Websites offer reams of advice on how to make “creative gender announcements” (like getting the tell-tale sonogram put onto t-shirts and sent to friends as a gift, or having “It’s going to be a [Whatever]!” proclaimed on the JumboTron at a major sports event).
The great Baby-Industrial Complex exploits this fascination by marketing what are ostensibly sex-specific versions of just about every baby product imaginable. You can buy “car seat covers for girls” or a “baby bath in boy colors” (where in this case, “boy colors” are taupe and green). And, of course, newborn fashion comes mostly in two types. You’ve got your pink, with ruffles and rhinestones and the words “diva” or “princess.” And you’ve got your blue, with trucks or sports equipment.
Now, I think we can all understand why new parents might want to know the sex of their baby when the information is out there to be known. It is hard to be offered knowledge and to turn that offer down. Just ask Adam and Eve.
But at the same time, what has become the over-fascination with this information invites some head-scratching, especially since you would think this information is less important than ever. We live in a society where a person’s sex does not determine his or her educational or professional future. Very few careers still exclude one sex or the other; two years ago, the U.S. Navy put women in nuclear submarines, ending one of the last sex-based exclusions in the American professional world. Birth-control technologies and legal abortion enable, as Samantha says on the first episode of “Sex and the City,” a woman to be able to “have sex like a man.” More and more fathers are granted primary custody of children in divorce cases, suggesting that most Americans do not think one’s sex determines one’s ability to raise children. While of course this is not a sex- or gender-blind society (as it is impossible to believe any society could be), it is a society in which, at least at the most formal levels of public discourse and institutions, we tend to agree that we don’t believe a person’s sex should determine much about the course of his or her future.
In my case, quite a few of the people who have questioned our decision not to find out the baby’s sex are the kinds of well-off, self-styled progressives who in other kinds of conversations can be counted on to talk about the fluidity of gender identity. They are people who don’t believe all girls have to like princesses or all boys have to like football.
How do we explain a culture that tells children that sex doesn’t matter much, that “girls can do anything boys can do,” and at the same moment is treating the sex of infants in the womb as this critical, determining fact?
One part of the story here, I think, is a lesson in how easy it is for us to become governed by the technologies of our age. The cultural obsession with knowing a baby’s sex before birth allows us to see the way in which our sense of priorities can come to be dominated – dictated, even – by the technological innovations of the moment.
In general, there is very little that one can know about a baby before birth, as Jonathan Menjivar reflected earlier this year on “This American Life. “ You might be able to make a good guess about your baby’s skin tone, or whether or not your baby will be able to engage in tongue-rolling (although neither guess can be made with iron-clad certainty). That’s about it.
In comes today’s expensive prenatal technology, which offers us (where “us” tends to mean parents who have health insurance) two bits of information that are relatively if not perfectly certain: 1) whether or not your baby has certain genetic markers and health problems, and 2) whether or not your baby has a penis.
In both cases, what has happened is that the perceived importance of that specific information has skyrocketed. (I won’t talk about the genetic-marker question here, except to mention that more than 90 percent of women who learn their child will have Down Syndrome get an abortion.)
My suspicion is that American parents are now going overboard with all this attention to prenatal sex – with companies named things like “Fetal Greetings” selling baby-sex announcements and the emergence of something called “gender cakes” – because it is just about the only thing they can know about their babies before those babies are born. Because it is a fact that parents know, it is a fact they come to emphasize and value – and then, to overemphasize and overvalue.
I am not the first to argue that in a technological culture, we start to overvalue what our technology allows us to know – which of course means that we risk undervaluing or ignoring those things that cannot be known, through technology or otherwise. As Martin Heidegger argued in his Question Concerning Technology, one of the dangers of modern technology is that we can start to mistake its limited modes of revealing truth as either the most important or the only modes of revealing truth. Modern technology, in drawing our eyes in one direction, can make us forget that there are many directions in which we can look.
In this technological moment, that means an overemphasis on those things that can be measured by our particular tools of measurement or answered with an iPhone application. And we tend to neglect or devalue those things that our technology can’t tell us (or can’t tell us in its current state of development).
We see examples of this in many realms of our common life. Educational policymakers are ratcheting up standardized testing, despite the protests of long-time, successful educators that the most important elements of learning cannot be translated into “measurable outcomes,” and despite decades of research suggesting a one-size-fits-all approach to education is foolish and counterproductive. And we have come to rely on the quantitative Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a measure of economic health, even though it is easy to see – to paraphrase the title of a recent book by Joseph Stiglitz, Amartya Sen, and Jean-Paul Fitoussi – that it mis-measures our lives in many ways. My students tend to be skeptical of any author without a Wikipedia listing; how can Bernard Iddings Bell matter, they wonder, if Wikipedia does not think he matters?
In all these cases and more, we allow our tools and technologies to change our thinking in profound ways, because we allow our tools and technologies to shape our thinking about what is important and meaningful. We do this in part because it enhances our own sense of mastery over the world: we humans have created these technologies after millennia of civilization, we think, so they must tell us what it is that we really want to know.
Indeed, modern technologies do expand our capacity to know and reflect upon many things. But they can also restrict and narrow our thinking.
In the case of prenatal sexing of babies – in overemphasizing the importance of that information – what can get lost is the fact that a person’s sex does not reveal much about who a person is or might be (in the basic terms of character or discipline or virtue), as Socrates argued so long ago. Even more fundamentally, what can get lost is the wonderful unknowability of babies, itself a reflection of the mystery and unpredictability of us all.
Our technologies draw our attention to those bits of data that we humans have mastered, at least relatively speaking. (Just as prenatal sex predictions are not perfectly accurate, no technologically gained information is without its imperfections.) And those bits of data are often informative and interesting; I would never argue that learning your baby’s sex in the womb is misguided or wrong.
But in this and other cases we should be careful not to overvalue those little things that we know, to the point that we neglect the enduring truth about our lives, that we are all partners in this grand mystery, the depths of which we cannot fathom and the extent of which we will never see. When we remember that, I think, we remember why we call it the miracle of life.