Most genetics professionals believe that parents should not be allowed to choose the sex of their child, according to the outcome of a debate held at the British Society of Human Genetics (BSHG) conference. Around 80 per cent of the 204 delegates attending the debate voted against carrying out sex selection for social reasons, with 18 per cent voting in favour, and two per cent abstaining. The use of PGD (preimplantation genetic diagnosis) to determine the sex of an embryo is currently only permitted for medical reasons in the UK, in families at risk of passing on a serious gender-linked condition.
Speaking in favour of the motion, Lynn Chitty, from the Institute of Child Health in London, argued that a couple undergoing PGD for a serious genetic condition should, if they wished, be allowed to choose the sex of the unaffected embryos returned to the womb. She said that the debate was not about the safety of current methods for sex selection, or the funding of such a service, but whether it was morally wrong to desire a baby of a particular gender. 'If it is not wrong to wish for something, then why is it morally wrong to fulfil that wish?' she asked the audience.
Speaking against social sex selection, Frances Flinter, of Guy's and St Thomas' Hospital in London, pointed to the preference for male babies in India and China. This has resulted in the widespread abortion of female fetuses, and a corresponding excess of men in those countries. She argued that if UK geneticists provided couples with a gender selection service, it might alienate public support for their work, and that they should concentrate on helping patients. In response, Marcus Pembrey of ALSPAC (The Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children), said that the availability of sex selection techniques would reduce harm in countries with a strong cultural preference for boys, as it would lead to fewer abortions and less female infanticide. He said that such a service should be allowed, but tightly regulated. Rather than representing the first step down a slippery slope, he argued, selecting embryos on the basis of gender was a clear line that could be drawn.
Concluding the debate, Tom Shakespeare of PEALS said the argument was about the use of sex selection techniques by people who wanted solely to determine their child's gender, not to avoid a medical condition. He said that wish fulfilment was wrong in this case because it was about trying to shape the future lives of children in a way that is of no benefit to the child itself. Referring to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority's consultation on PGD, he said that most people were opposed to sex selection, and that allowing the procedure would harm the reputation of geneticists.
The annual BSHG conference, held last week in York, brought together over 700 clinical geneticists, scientists and genetics counsellors to hear about the latest developments in human genetics and their clinical applications. Topics included strategies for identifying genes involved in common diseases, new techniques for identifying chromosome abnormalities, unusual genetic disease mechanisms and the public understanding of genetics. A report of the meeting will appear on the BioNews website shortly.