One paper presented at last week's meeting of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine has caused a media ripple on this side of the Atlantic. The Genetics and IVF Institute in Virginia has helped to produce over 300 babies using its sperm sorting technique, which allows couples to choose the sex of their child before fertilisation. But the excitement for British journalists was news that six couples from the UK have used the technique to have a child of the desired gender. Some commentators think that it's only a matter of time before the technique, called MicroSort, is offered in this country.
If MicroSort did arrive in the UK, it wouldn't be the first time sperm sorting for sex selection was made available to British couples. In January 1993, the London Gender Clinic opened in north London, offering a different kind of sperm sorting procedure. However, despite a media furore, a parliamentary attempt to outlaw the procedure and a Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) public consultation on the issue, the clinic eventually closed down and the controversy died away. The fact that the clinic was charging £650 and couldn't offer much more chance of success than nature (70 per cent was its best offering) was probably the reason for its demise.
But now, sperm sorting is back and it's been sufficiently successful in the United States (around 300 babies have been born and the clinic reports a success rate of up to 91 percent) to make government officials in the UK sit up and take notice. In an attempt to pre-empt the possible arrival of MicroSort in the UK, another HFEA consultation as been ordered to consider the rights and wrongs of selecting the sex of your future child for non-medical reasons. But it's not just a question of rights and wrongs, but also a question of regulation.
Because the UK assisted conception regulations only cover the use of embryos and of frozen or donated sperm, a sperm sorting clinic could be opened up in the UK and operate without any involvement from the HFEA. If fresh sperm is used, the HFEA has no jurisdiction over the procedure. But should it? When regulations were originally passed through parliament in 1990, techniques that involve fresh eggs and sperm were specifically left out. As a result, procedures like GIFT, which involves the transfer of fresh eggs and sperm to the patient's Fallopian tubes, were left unregulated. It remains to be seen whether
sex selection is sufficiently worrying to the British public to
warrant an extension to the law.