Did you know?

Click any word in a definition or example to find the entry for that word

family balancing

noun [uncountable]

the practice of choosing the sex of an unborn baby on the basis of the sex of the children a family already has

'There have been reported cases where women have had a long run of boys or a long run of girls, or this peculiar new notion of family balancing where couples decide they just want two children and the [sic] want one of each.'

Bureau of Investigative Journalism 23rd February 2012

There was a time when the gender of an unborn child would remain a mystery, a much anticipated revelation which could only be experienced on the day of the birth. However for many decades now, technology has made it possible to predict a future child's sex pretty accurately, giving parents in developed nations the choice about whether they want to be surprised. But with knowledge comes power, and in this situation the potential to make a decision which has far more serious consequences. Shocking as it may seem to many of us, a range of evidence suggests that some people will now go to great lengths to 'choose' the sex of their unborn child in an attempt to engineer the composition of their family – a practice which has been dubbed family balancing.

technology has made it possible to predict a future child's sex pretty accurately, giving parents in developed nations the choice about whether they want to be surprised
 

Though all methods of family balancing have the same ultimate goal – to control the sex of any offspring – the expression is used in a range of contexts. More conventionally it has been used as an alternative way of describing sex selection, a term used in the field of genetics to refer to the manipulation of embryos for gender preference. If a girl is required, then the X-chromosome sperm are used to fertilize the egg; if a boy is preferred, the Y-chromosome is used. Alternatively, the gender of embryos is tested prior to implantation in the womb and only embryos of the desired gender are used (a technique technically referred to as Pre-implantation Genetic Diagnosis, which is legal in much of the US, Russia and the Middle East).

Although these techniques might seem highly controversial and raise many ethical considerations, they are perhaps overshadowed by methods of gender selection which may occur once pregnancy is already established, or even post-birth. The expression family balancing recently hit the headlines in the UK when it was revealed that a number of private clinics were illegally carrying out sex-selection abortions, hidden under the label of being undertaken for 'personal reasons'. (In the UK, abortion for non-medical reasons is legal up to the 24th week of pregnancy, but a termination on the grounds of gender alone is illegal under the 1967 Abortion Act). Though shocking and surprising, this is just a more recent chapter in the history of a concept which for social and cultural reasons has existed for many generations in other parts of the world. In countries like India, where boys may still be needed for hard physical labour or may be the only ones who can inherit land or property, the practice of aborting females is now seen as a civilised way of family balancing, a modern alternative to the primitive practice of killing or abandoning unwanted baby girls. Gender-based abortion is also commonplace in China. Here, the country's one-child policy has also led to other ways of family balancing, such as infants being put up for adoption simply because of their gender.

Background – Family balancing

The expression family balancing has existed in US English since the mid-nineties. Originally a euphemism in the context of genetic engineering, the term was used to draw a distinction between sex-selection on medical grounds, such as avoiding gender-linked genetic diseases, and the opportunity for families who already have a child of one gender to 'balance' their families by having a baby of the opposite sex.

As a smokescreen for a concept which may seem pretty unpalatable to many, the word balancing creates an effective euphemism, being inherently positive and relating to the idea of giving something stability and/or improving it. This forms a stark contrast to the word gendercide, which is occasionally used in similar contexts but carries obvious connotations of 'killing' (compare e.g.: homicide, insecticide, suicide).

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

Last week …

Read last week's BuzzWord. Structured reality.

This article was first published on 16th April 2012.

Blog

A must for anyone with an interest in the changing face of language. The Macmillan Dictionary blog explores English as it is spoken around the world today.

global English and language change from our blog

Word of the Day

carob

a sweet brown powder that tastes like chocolate and is made from the seeds of a Mediterranean tree