Sperm mailed to US for sorting by sex

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A BRITISH test tube baby clinic is offering couples the chance to choose the sex of their baby by sending sperm samples to be sorted in America and then posted back to Britain.

Samples from two couples under treatment in the IVF unit at the Bupa Roding Hospital in Essex will be sent next month to the Genetics and IVF Institute in Fairfax, Virginia, which has developed a technique for sorting sperm into those carrying X (female) and Y (male) chromosomes. The selected sperm will then be re-frozen and returned to Britain where they will be used to artificially inseminate the women.

It is believed to be the first time a sex selection service has been offered to couples without the need for them to leave these shores. Paul Rainsbury, medical director of the Roding Hospital IVF clinic, said: "One couple has several boys and wants a girl and the other has girls and wants a boy. They both want a child of a different sex to complete their families."

Mr Rainsbury attracted controversy last year when he sent eight couples for sex selection treatment to Italy and Saudi Arabia. Sex selection for social reasons is banned under the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990, but this applies only to techniques where IVF or donor sperm is used. By using sperm from the male partner of each couple, Mr Rainsbury believes he can stay within the law.

However, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority said the import of sperm required a "special direction", granted at its discretion on a case-by-case basis. In a statement issued to The Independent last night it said: "We would want to look at the clinical effectiveness and scientific validity of any procedures to treat the sperm and evaluate the risk of harm." A spokesman said sex selection for social reasons involved treating the child as a commodity and marked the first step towards designer babies.

The Genetics and IVF Institute surprised the obstetrics world last week with a report in the journal Human Reproduction claiming an 85 per cent success rate in selecting girls and 65 per cent in selecting boys compared with the 50 per cent chance offered by nature.

The institute uses a technique originally developed for breeding farm animals, which relies on detecting differences in the quantity of DNA in sperm carrying X and Y chromosomes that have been stained with a fluorescent dye.