Picking baby's sex banned amid public opposition

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Selecting the sex of a baby for social reasons should be banned, the Government's fertility regulator said yesterday.

After a year-long consultation, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) ruled that couples should not be permitted to "balance" their families by using medical techniques to select the sex of their offspring, because it would lead to children being treated as commodities.

But the authority said sex selection would be allowed to avoid serious gender-linked disorders such as haemophilia and muscular dystrophy - which affect only boys - and called for the technique of sperm sorting to be regulated. The changes would require an amendment to the law.

The consultation exercise found that 82 per cent of people opposed sex selection for social reasons and a similar pro- portion backed it for life-threatening disorders.

Suzi Leather, the chairwoman of the HFEA, said there was an overwhelming consensus that a child was a gift, and allowing parents freedom of choice in this area was inappropriate. "The public specifically reject the language and values of consumerism in this intimate area of parent-child relations," she said. "People thought through at quite a deep level the implications of choice and what that would mean in families and for children growing up with those choices having been made. They felt it was better to go with the lottery than allow parents to control their children in that sense. There was a deep-seated belief that children are gifts and not consumer commodities."

Sex selection has been possible for more than a decade with IVF, using pre-implantation genetic diagnosis to choose male or female embryos to be placed in the mother's womb. Under current licensing arrangements, the HFEA allows IVF clinics, which it regulates, to use the technique only where it is necessary to avoid a sex-linked hereditary disease.

In recent years, the development of systems for sorting sperm, first used in breeding cattle, has brought the possibility of "family balancing" within reach of a large number of couples. But clinics offering the technique fall outside the remit of the HFEA.

One technique, the Gradient method, in which sperm is sorted in a centrifuge, was offered in the UK, but there was "no scientific evidence" that it worked, Ms Leather said.

A newer technique, called flow cytometry, had a 91 per cent success rate for girls and 74 per cent for boys, but not enough was known about its long-term risks.

Critics accused the HFEA of being over-cautious. Juliet Tizzard, director of the Progress Educational Trust, said: "There is no evidence that gender selection causes physical or psychological harm to the child born, other family members or even to society. Given the lack of evidence of harm, the decision whether to have gender selection should be taken by the prospective parents."

John Harris, professor of bioethics at the University of Manchester, said: "If it isn't wrong to wish for a bonny, bouncing baby girl, why would it be wrong to make use of technology to play fairy godmother?"

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