Ronald M. Cyr, MD

Disclosures

September 01, 2010

In This Article

Introduction

But if you be desirous to know whether the conception be man or woman: then let a drop or two of her milk be expressed on a smooth glass or a bright knife, or else on the nail of one of her fingers. If the milk flows and spreads widely upon it, by and by then is it a woman child: but if the drop continues to stand still upon that which it is milked on, then is it sign of a man child. [1]

Humans have long sought to foretell the sex of an unborn child. Although the socially correct notion in the contemporary United States is, "I don't care what it is, as long as it's healthy," most people do have a preference, and only the rare couple will pass up an opportunity to discover the baby's sex before birth.

The fact that boys remain the first choice of parents worldwide, now and in the past, is no secret. Viewers of the television miniseries "The Tudors" saw how King Henry VIII's desire for a male heir influenced world history. In late 16th-century France, Louise Bourgeois, midwife to Marie de Médicis (the second wife of King Henri IV), was paid 500 écus to deliver a son, but only 300 for a daughter.[2]

For centuries, the sex ratio at birth showed a small preponderance of boys: 103-106 boys for every 100 girls. The stability of this ratio in all societies is assumed to be nature's method of compensating for the increased mortality of young males and balancing the sexes by the time of puberty. A provocative article from The Economist, "Gendercide: The Worldwide War on Baby Girls,"[3] suggests that human interference during the past 20 years has created a preponderance of males in many countries. For example, the sex ratio in China was 124/100 during 2000-2004. Nick Eberstadt, a demographer at the American Enterprise Institute, believes that this preponderance is not due to any country's particular policy, but to "the fateful collision between overweening son preference, the use of rapidly-spreading prenatal sex determination technology, and declining fertility."[3] This trend may have more effect on society than the bedroom antics of ancient royals has.

From a modern perspective, it seems apparent that historical methods for predicting the fetal sex were no better than chance, and thus more innocuous. The obstetrician François Mauriceau (1637-1709) admitted as much:

Many women want us to tell them if it is a boy or a girl -- which is absolutely impossible. Yet there is scarcely a midwife who does not brag about her predictive skills; and when they are right, it is surely as much by luck, as from any possible science...But we are sometimes pressured by women or their husbands into giving an opinion, and must indulge them as best we can by looking for some rather uncertain signs. [4]

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