The Observer, one of the UK's Sunday Newspapers, has published a report claiming that sex selection techniques are available commercially for British and other couples at a fertility clinic in Belgium.
Located in Ghent, the clinic is said to offer the service to couples who already have children of one sex, but who want to ensure that their next child is 'of the opposite gender'. The technique - sperm sorting - is not illegal, but it has raised concerns that people are trying the controversial method before all the potential effects of it are known.
Sperm sorting involves a sample of sperm being taken and frozen before being sent to the MicroSort laboratory in the US. The technique relies on the fact that the X chromosome carries more DNA than the Y chromosome, and is therefore 'heavier'. In a 'modified flow cytometer instrument', most of the heavier sperm separates from the 'lighter' sperm, after being dyed with a fluorescent marker and fired at high speed under a laser. The laser sorts the sperm according to the amount of fluorescent marker it has identified. Once the sorting procedure has been finished, the sorted sperm is returned to the Belgian clinic, where, in an IVF cycle, it is used to fertilise the woman's egg. The clinic claims the techniques is 91 per cent effective if a girl is wanted, and 75 per cent for a boy.
Suzi Leather, chair of the UK's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), is reported as saying she was 'deeply concerned that people might be going abroad for a procedure which could turn out to be unsafe and unreliable'. The HFEA is planning to launch a public consultation on sex selection next month.