In the third of this year’s excellent Reith Lectures, Prof. Sandel explored Genetics and Morality. One of his points was that no matter how hard we try, our children may not turn out the way we want because we don’t choose them. In this way parenthood, he maintains, more than other human relationships, teaches what the theologian William F. May calls an “openness to the unbidden”.

But our society is having a love affair with scientism and materialism – not the ‘unbidden’. The unbidden sounds frightening, a bit like the Boogie Man so we should go to war against it. A good example of living with the unbidden is accepting the gender of our children. But many couples don’t think a healthy child is good enough for them – they want a boy or even in some cases a girl. So it’s not unheard of for couples to abort a foetus of the ‘wrong sex’ – a really radical riposte to William F. May!

For thousands of years couples have tried to choose the gender of their children. Women were blamed for conceiving girls. Then they discovered that spermatozoa determined gender. Then some people said that it was the terrain (aka the  female reproductive tract) on which the spermatozoa raced that made the difference. So there have been various attempts to influence the agenda of a prospective foetus, including taking sperm, trying to isolate those of one gender and inseminating artificially. And that’s only about 70-80% effective. “Sorry Thomasina dear, Dad and I did our best to make you a boy but the method failed. Still we decided not to have an abortion and keep you after all because we loved you so much!”

Prof. Sandel drew my attention to one of the first attempts at gender selection – a recommendation by none other than Aristotle. The great philosopher advised men who wanted to produce a boy to tie off their left testicle before intercourse! Now while Ari was prescient about gender being determined by spermatozoa, his idea that the left testicle produces X (female) sperm and the right Y (male) sperm was utterly wrong. There must have been a few one-balled fathers in ancient Greece who could have absolutely disproved this theory but there must also have been some disciples of the great man who took this advice to groin.  Almost exactly 50% of those who did must have congratulated themselves and thanked Aristotle profusely – after the birth of a fine son or any son for that matter. However they wouldn’t have been thanking him too heartily after the act of copulation – that’s for sure. ‘Tying off a testicle’ will indeed stop some of the sperm from that testicle reaching the outside world by blocking the vas deferens. However it would also cut off the blood supply to that testicle which could be dangerous. It could also cause torsion (twisted testicle) which means that unless the poor man could be taken into the future and operated on, he would lose that testicle. At best, when the testicle is untied, blood rushes into it causing exquisite ‘unbidden’ pain which few men would welcome and certainly not with a very deep voice. In fact this cruel trick is well known to torturers who use a shoe lace to torment their victims in just this way.

So Aristotle actually recommended that men torture themselves to avoid being open to the unbidden. So always remember that when it comes to medicine, even the brightest of the bright sometimes talk balls.