The ethics committee of the British Medical Association has concluded that gender selection for medical or social reasons is a morally acceptable form of family planning.
Although at least one private clinic in London is already offering services to help couples choose whether they conceive a boy or a girl, the BMA said techniques were not yet scientifically validated. But Dr Fleur Fisher, head of the association's ethics and science division, said yesterday: 'Gender selection is on the horizon and we believe it should be made available provided there are adequate safeguards.'
Services should be restricted to couples in stable relationships who already have at least one child, Dr Fisher and her colleagues say. Moreover, gender selection should only be used before conception.
The issue is expected to generate heated debate tomorrow among the 600 doctors at the BMA annual conference in Torquay. The motion emphasises that no doctor should terminate a pregnancy on grounds of foetal gender alone, unless a sex-related disease is present.
A BMA working party on ethics, headed by Dr Fisher, is this week launching a book, Medical Ethics Today: its practice and philosophy, which acknowledges that gender selection is potentially a moral minefield.
'Some believe that gender selection should be approved on utilitarian grounds since it would make more families happy . . . Thus, allowing couples to choose would increase the number of happy children and diminish the abuse or neglect of unwanted children,' the authors state. 'But the ability to plan the sex composition of one's family may give rise to trivial or misleading attitudes.'
Selection techniques include sperm sorting and the timing of insemination. It is possible to select after the egg has been fertilised or the embryo has implanted in the womb, but the law does not permit abortion on grounds of foetal gender alone. Termination is permitted where the woman's mental or physical health would be impaired by continuation of pregnancy. 'In some cases the pressures brought to bear on a woman to produce a child of the desired gender may affect her health,' the BMA book points out.