Revolutionary foetus sex test raises eugenics fears14 years, 11 months ago
Posted on Jul 27, 2005, 7 a.m.
By Bill Freeman
Is it a girl or a boy? It's the first question every new mother asks. And the answer can now be given almost from the moment a woman finds out that she is pregnant. A revolutionary new test launched in the United States this month can tell the sex of an embryo just five weeks after conception. The company behind the test, known as the Baby Gender Mentor, says that it will help couples to decide whether to paint the spare bedroom pink or blue.
Is it a girl or a boy? It's the first question every new mother asks. And the answer can now be given almost from the moment a woman finds out that she is pregnant.
A revolutionary new test launched in the United States this month can tell the sex of an embryo just five weeks after conception. The company behind the test, known as the Baby Gender Mentor, says that it will help couples to decide whether to paint the spare bedroom pink or blue.
But anti-abortion groups fear that the test, in which a single drop of the mother's blood is tested for traces of her baby's DNA, could lead to an increase in abortions by making it easier for parents to end a pregnancy if they want a child of a different sex.
The $275 (£158) test promises 99.9 per cent accuracy in less than 48 hours. If a Y chromosome is found in the mother's blood, the child she is carrying is a boy.
Determining the sex using conventional ultrasound images is possible only when the foetus has developed sufficiently for the genitalia to be visible on screen. Ultrasound checks are not carried out until at least 16 weeks into the pregnancy.
At five weeks, the embryo is barely half an inch long and many women are not even aware that they are pregnant. "You can tiptoe around it, but the fact is that if you're sending information about sex, then you're in the sex-selection testing business," said Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania.
Sex selection is a growing problem in parts of Asia, where a preference for sons is skewing population ratios and leading to Chinese parents killing baby daughters.
Sherry Bonelli, the president of Pregnancystore.com, which holds the exclusive rights to market the test in America, believes that there is no evidence mothers will abort babies because they are the "wrong" sex.
"It is for people who are so excited that they just can't wait to find out if they are having a boy or a girl," she said.
"Perhaps people already have a couple of kids and they want to know what colour to paint the bedroom. And even if you really wanted a girl but it turns out to be a boy, it gives you extra time to get over your disappointment."
Hundreds of women have bought the test, developed by a Boston-based company, Acu-Gen Biolab. Ms Bonelli said that there was no evidence of using the service to select the sex of children.
Organisations such as Americans United for Life, however, fear that some women disappointed by the result would find it easier to have an abortion so early in pregnancy. "Women who are interested in only having one gender will be finding out in a time when it's certainly safer for them to have an abortion without the complications normally associated with those that would come later in pregnancy," said Daniel McConchie, a spokesman.
Several clinics catering for Indian and Chinese immigrants in the US already claim to be able to improve couples' chances of having a coveted male heir by using techniques such as sperm separation. It looks for sperm carrying the male chromosome but has a high failure rate.
Statistics from an affluent area of New Delhi show that in 2004, for every 1,000 boys, only 762 girls were born. In India, a number of women are suspected of having abortions until they have at least one male child.
The Baby Gender Mentor is the first in a new range of tests due to come on to the market which focus on using DNA from unborn children.
Later this year, the company behind the test is expected to announce that it will be able to detect severe genetic disorders such as Down's Syndrome when the embryo is just a few weeks old. Unlike the Baby Gender Mentor, which is sent to parents at home - they send back the blood and find out the result later online - those tests will be carried out by doctors and regulated by the American medical profession. Tanya Hunter turned to the test relatively late in her pregnancy to determine the sex of her baby after an ultrasound carried out at 16 weeks was inconclusive.
Mrs Hunter, from Verona, Wisconsin, already has three boys and admits that she and her husband were hoping for a daughter. After getting the results by e-mail, Mrs Hunter was initially a little disappointed to learn that she was expecting another son.
Yet, she says that she could not imagine having an abortion. "Who would do that?" she asked. "They would have to be a very sad person.'
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