Choosing the sex of your child

Baby clothes, pink and blueIn recent weeks, several reports have appeared in the media that Australia's ban on couples using IVF to choose the sex of their children for social reasons or to balance their families might soon be lifted.

Most stories quoted 'IVF pioneer' Professor Gab Kovacs, who is said to be 'leading the charge' or 'leading the lobby'. A number of other fertility doctors are also involved.

This seems to be a pre-emptive attempt to sway public opinion. The inquiry has not yet commenced. And supporters of this view know that many of us are not comfortable about parents choosing the sex of their children. So ahead of time, they're trying to change our minds.

Many couples with one child would prefer another child of the opposite sex. However, studies show that very few people would take deliberate steps to guarantee that this happens. To the contrary, many people feel intuitively that there's something not quite right about doing this.

Following its usual practice, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) is soon to review its 2004 Ethical Guidelines on the Use of Assisted Reproductive Technology in Clinical Practice and Research.

These Guidelines permit sex selection in Australia for medical reasons in those cases where parents could pass on a genetic disease to children of one or the other sex. However, they do not permit sex selection for non-medical reasons. They state that 'sex selection (by whatever means) must not be undertaken except to reduce the risk of transmission of a serious genetic condition'.

These guidelines apply to all fertility clinics and fertility doctors around Australia. It seems that some of them are not happy about having to conform to community standards.

This is about in vitro fertilisation (IVF) and preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). IVF uses sperm and ova to make multiple embryos outside the body. PGD tests one cell from each developing embryo — in this case, to identify which are male and which are female. Only embryos of the sex which will not develop a particular genetic disease are then implanted into the woman's body.

All this is very expensive. The cost of a single cycle of IVF is between $5–8000; the cost of PGD is between $10–15,000. Some of the supporters of sex selection for non-medical reasons are fertility doctors who would receive these large payments. I wonder if this financial incentive has helped to shape their views.

The NHMRC identifies at least three concerns about sex selection for non-medical reasons. Above all, it believes that 'admission to life should not be conditional upon a child being a particular sex'. It adds that 'sex selection is incompatible with the parent-child relationship being one that involves unconditional acceptance'. And it warns that 'sex selection may be an expression of sexual prejudice, in particular against girls'.

The Victorian Law Reform Commission reviewed Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART) in 2007. It identified these same three concerns. Arguing that 'the purpose of ART is to help people who cannot otherwise have children', it added that 'sex selection for non-medical reasons does not fit within this criterion'.

Does sex selection for non-medical reasons take us down a 'slippery slope' which will eventually lead to some people also wanting to select embryos based on their intelligence, sporting ability, or even hair and eye colour? The Commission also noted this disturbing concern.

For all these reasons, the Victorian Law Reform Commission concluded that 'the current legislative ban on sex selection for non-medical reasons should remain in force'.

The Victorian Assisted Reproductive Treatment Act 2008 prohibits sex selection in IVF unless it is necessary to prevent a genetic abnormality or disease. In Western Australia, the Reproductive Technology Council prohibits sex selection unless it is to prevent a gender-based disorder. Similarly, the South Australian Reproductive Technology (Clinical Practices) Act 1988 forbids sex selection in IVF unless it is to prevent the transmission of a genetic defect.

In November 2003, a public consultation by Britain's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) found that 80 per cent of people did not want sex selection techniques to be available for non-medical reasons. HFEA Chair Suzi Leather said, 'We are not persuaded that the likely benefits of permitting sex selection for social reasons are strong enough to outweigh the possible harm that might be done.'

In the United Kingdom, sex selection is only allowed for medical reasons. Sex selection for non-medical reasons continues to be prohibited. This is also the situation in Canada and in New Zealand.

In 2008, the Catholic Church also spoke against couples 'using artificial means of procreation in order to engage in genetic selection of their offspring'.

These many different reports, statements, guidelines and laws reflect general community concern about couples choosing the sex of their children for non-medical reasons.

The current debate looks like reaching the same conclusion. Already, Dr Sandra Hacker, chair of the NHMRC's Australian Health Ethics Committee, has said that previous consultations have found the 'majority of Australians' opposed to this possibility. Sex selection for reasons other than genetic abnormalities has a 'general disaffection within the general population'.

The Federal Health Minister Nicola Roxon also emphasised that 'the government has not set down this path because we wish to make any changes'. She added, 'And, at a personal level, I am very uncomfortable about the suggestions that such a change might be made.'

Despite the efforts of its opponents, it does not seem likely that Australia's rule against sex selection for non-medical reasons is about to be changed.

Kevin McGovernFr Kevin McGovern is the Director of the Caroline Chisholm Centre for Health Ethics, which is sponsored by Victoria's Catholic hospitals.

Topic tags: kevin mcgovern, in vitro fertilisation, ivf, preimplantation genetic diagnosis, eugenics, bioethics



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Existing comments

I certainly feel that IVF should be available only to those who can not otherwise have children. Sex selection however should be available to those who need to avoid passing on a gender related defect.

Patricia Ryan | 08 April 2010  

people like myself who have already had a boy naturally and then undertaken IVF and had boys. Could be swayed in future to use IVF to have another baby if it could be a girl. I'm not saying i would. I don't think people should do IVF if you can get pregnant naturally. The stress of IVF is very hard and it's wonderful to be blessed with a healthy baby, who know the rates of girls/boys with ivf it could be swayed. Perhaps people could have the option, not everyone will want it. For every boy someone would like, someone else would want a girl.

shez | 01 June 2010  

I wonder how many embryos are aborted once the parent finds out the baby is not the desired sex? You read many stories of this happening. Surely gender selection for parents who have 2 or more of the same sex, should be able to then chose to avoid that type of tragedy not to mention the anxiety, guilt and making the very painful decision to terminate. It's seems that abortion is an option but gender selection is not. Most parents who have 2 or more of the same sex will not have another child if they can't have the desired child. Many children will never be born because parents don't have the right to choose .

Glenda hardy | 12 October 2013  


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