The birth last April of baby Sean Greig seemed even more blessed to his family than most such events. Already the parents of two girls, John and Maureen Greig of San Jose, Calif. had given nature a nudge and tried a new method of sperm selection that would give them a 77 percent chance of producing a boy—and it worked. “Some people say, ‘How unnatural and bizarre,’ ” says Maureen, 30, “and I say they shouldn’t try it if they feel that way. I wanted to do everything humanly possible to have a boy, but if I didn’t, then it wasn’t meant to be.”
The method the Greigs used was invented by Ronald J. Ericsson, 49, a rancher and biologist who has patented the technique and licensed 24 clinics worldwide to use it. Since 1981,154 couples have paid from $250 to $300 to stack the odds in favor of blue bunting, and 118 have gotten their wish. (The other 36 babies were healthy girls.)
The Ericsson method, whose application is overseen by his Sausalito, Calif. firm, Gametrics, involves taking sperm from the father’s semen in the laboratory, then placing it in a glass column full of human albumin. The fastest, strongest sperm, most of them containing Y, or male, chromosomes, swim their way to the bottom. They are then placed in another glass column containing thicker albumin and swim down again. Says Ericsson: “It’s like salmon swimming to spawn. We put up barriers, and only a few get where they’re going.” The survivors of this process of elimination are then inserted into the potential mother’s cervix for the traditional meeting with the egg. Most Ericsson couples require two to three inseminations before pregnancy is achieved.
The Gametrics firm may offer couples a greater chance of success than ever in choosing the sex of their children, but some of Ericsson’s scientific contemporaries have been reluctant to lend their endorsement. Dr. Ramaa Rao, former director of the fertility unit at Michael Reese Hospital and Medical Center in Chicago, co-supervised early-stage tests, whose validity is questioned by Ericsson and other reproductive specialists, indicating that Ericsson’s method did not raise the concentration of Y sperm high enough to influence gender.
Moreover, the procedure has ignited an ethical backfire. Ericsson’s principal critic is social psychologist Roberta Steinbacher, a former nun who is on leave from her teaching job at Cleveland State University. If parents are able to choose their baby’s sex, she declares, “you have to be concerned about the future of all women. There’s no question that there exists a universal preference for sons.” In India and Pakistan, she points out, baby girls are often abandoned at birth. And in China, she says, “they have a new law that you can have only one child. So when you talk about universal son preference, you know that abortions in China are going up at a fantastic rate because people can tell, with other technology, what sex the baby is going to be.” Closer to home, Steinbacher is concerned that parents who are given a choice will pick a son first and a girl next, giving new meaning to the phrase second-class citizen. “I think women have to ask themselves, ‘Where does this stop?’ ” she says. “A lot of us wouldn’t be here right now if these practices had been in effect years ago.”
In rebuttal, Ericsson maintains that his method is unlikely to be used in the sex selection of a firstborn, since that would take the fun out of conception. “When you’re young and in love and decide to be a parent, you want it done romantically,” he says. He points out that Nan Chico, a Ph.D. candidate in medical sociology at the University of California, has made a survey of couples soliciting Ericsson’s help and found that less than one percent are interested in selecting the sex of a firstborn. “The average person writing already has 2.2 children,” says Ericsson, “and is looking to have a child of the opposite sex.”
While Ericsson keeps a close eye on the clinics using his method—there are 15 in the U.S. and nine in other countries—he is equally concerned with the fate of his other major invention, Epibloc, a rat killer and sterilant. Last year Epibloc wiped out 80 percent of the rats in the Pentagon and sterilized 75 percent of the remaining males. Another client was a poultry-breeding institute in Peking that got rid of 79 percent of its rat population in one week. Epibloc was derived from a male contraceptive developed by Ericsson for the Upjohn Co. 18 years ago, but which was never commercially developed because of its toxicity.
Ericsson first became interested in biology during his childhood in Belle Fourche, S.Dak. and spent summers caring for the cattle on his family’s ranch in Wyoming. He brought his bride, Jean, there 28 years ago, then gave up ranching to study the physiology of reproduction at the University of Kentucky. Armed with his doctorate, he went to work for Upjohn, but eventually tired of corporate life. After three years as a consultant to Schering AG, a West German pharmaceutical concern in Berlin, where he developed the sex-selection method, he started Gametrics and now runs it from a modest Sausalito office decorated with a stuffed rat and photographs from cigarette ads taken on the family ranch in Wyoming. Given to occasional whimsy, he uses cartilage from a bull’s penis whenever he needs a pointer to help explain one of his charts.
The Ericssons live in a nearby condo, where, he says, “after 28 years, Jean still doesn’t laugh at my jokes.” Their daughter, Julie, 26, is married and living in Kansas, and son Scott, 24, has a degree in animal science and is now studying economics to prepare himself for running the family ranches. But Ericsson’s pet is Scott’s daughter, Marie, 18 months, and he is, in fact, now clinically testing a variation of his male-sex-selection method that will favor the birth of girl babies.
Ericsson thinks of himself as a cowboy, a scientist and an entrepreneur and doesn’t see his work as raising tough moral questions. “I’m in favor of anything that improves the quality of life,” he says. “Sex selection does that, because people who want to use the method have to sit down and think about what they are doing.”