Parents should be allowed to select the sex of their children, scientists say

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Leading scientists who made breakthroughs in genetics and fertility have demanded that Britain end its ban on couples choosing the sex of IVF babies.

Leading scientists who made breakthroughs in genetics and fertility have demanded that Britain end its ban on couples choosing the sex of IVF babies.

James Watson, the Nobel Prize-winning DNA pioneer, and Professor Robert Edwards, who helped create the first test-tube baby in 1978, said couples should be allowed the right to select the gender of their offspring.

Dr Watson, who co-discovered the DNA double helix in 1953, said that the current ban amounted to a "pathetic" attempt to control people's lives. Professor Edwards said that sex selection was justified for couples who simply wanted to ensure their families had both boys and girls. "For serious family balancing I have no objection at all," Professor Edwards said.

The ban came into force in 2003 after the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) found most people were against sex selection.Suzi Leather, the chair of the HFEA, said the decision was made because of risks in allowing selection techniques such as sperm sorting, which separates male-bearing sperm from female-bearing sperm.

"The HFEA has to balance the potential benefit of any technique against the potential harm. We are not persuaded that the benefits of permitting sex selection for social reasons are strong enough to outweigh the possible harm that might be done," Ms Leather argued.

However, many fertility clinics in America offer the choice of whether to implant male or female IVF embryos into the womb, and there is a thriving industry in sorting sperm for artificial insemination.

"It is a perfectly valid thing to do," Dr Watson said. "Some women just desperately want daughters. Let them have them.

"The recent decision to make it illegal in the UK is just absurd. It is the Big Brother attitude of the educated middle-classes, no less. It's just pathetic."

In Britain, doctors are allowed to choose the sex of IVF embryos if the parents carry a medical condition affecting one sex - such as Duchenne's muscular dystrophy which affects boys.

However, if given the choice, some couples would prefer either a boy or a girl for non-medical reasons. In the West this is primarily for family balancing where one sex is chosen to complement the sex of existing children in the family.

However, some couples may have a preference for one sex - usually boys - for social or economic reasons. In Asia ultrasound scans and abortion, or even infanticide, have skewed the population in favour of males. Some economists say Asia is now has a deficit of 100 million girls.

The HFEA found that more than 80 per cent of the public did not want sex selection for social reasons.

"There was also ... concern about the welfare of children born as a result of sex selection," the HFEA said. "Because of the potential risk of harm associated with the manipulation of sperm in the laboratory, all treatment with sorted sperm should be regulated."

Gender myths

* Women should eat meat and salty food to get a boy or gorge themselves on desserts if they want to have a girl - unlikely to work given that sex is decided by the sperm rather than the egg.

* Couples are more likely to conceive sons if they make love standing up or when there is a quarter moon. Girls are more commonly conceived in the missionary position or when there is a full moon. * A French surgeon in the 18th century advised men wishing to sire boys to have their left testicle removed which was, he insisted, no more painful than tooth extraction. But both testicles make male and female sperm.

* The Victorians suggested dieting for parents who wanted boys, because males were thought to be the ''starved sex''. Lack of food, however, does not discriminate between the two types of sex-determining sperm.