US clinic selects babies' sex to order
FROM MARK HENDERSON, SCIENCE CORRESPONDENT IN LAUSANNE
SCIENTISTS revealed yesterday that nearly 200 couples, including one from Britain, have had babies whose sex was chosen for purely social reasons.
Doctors at an American clinic have used a sophisticated " sex-sorting " machine on the sperm of their fathers. It increases the likelihood of conceiving the desired sex to 92 per cent for girls and 72 per cent for boys, the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology conference in Lausanne was told.
Success rates for the procedure, which tags and separates sperm carrying male and female chromosomes, are significantly higher than those achieved with previous technology, which has barely changed the approximately 50 per cent chance of a baby of each sex provided by nature.
The clinicís methods have, however, provoked widespread criticism because of the social, rather than medical, reasons for using the procedure. Fertility experts also raised doubts about the safety of the technique, and its effects on the long-term health of the children conceived.
The MicroSort system used by the Genetics and IVF Institute in Fairfax, Virginia, has yet to be employed by any assisted reproduction unit in Britain, although several less advanced methods for selecting sperm have been tried.
It would not be illegal for British doctors to use the machine.
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority said that it could not block its use for sifting sperm before a woman was inseminated with her partnerís sperm. The authority was responsible only for IVF procedures and donated and frozen sperm, its spokesman said.
Harvey Stern, a medical geneticist at the Virginia centre, said that by the end of last month 306 couples had conceived with MicroSort, and 200 babies had been born. One was a girl born to a British couple, who already had two sons, after treatment costing £1,500.
At least 80 per cent of these patients ó more than 160 couples, wanted to choose their babyís sex for reasons of " family balancing " ó with only 20 per cent seeking to prevent the transmission of a hereditary disease found only in boys.
Dr Stern said that he had no ethical difficulty with the way the device was being used to produce " much-loved and much-wanted " children. " Many couples say I love my sons or daughters but I would like to have a girl so I can buy little dresses. One gentlemen has vineyards and would like to leave them to his son. I donít have a problem with that. "
The American Society of Reproductive Medicine had said that the procedure was not unethical, Dr Stern said. " Some people have said that it discriminates against females, but we are doing more girls than boys. There is concern that in some parts of the world they will use it to exclusively create males, but we will not do first children. "
The procedure was criticised by Nuala Scarisbrick, a trustee of the anti-abortion pressure group Life, who said that it was discriminatory and unfair to the children involved. " There has got to be a risk with this technique that the expectations on that child would be unreasonable. One worries that scientists are going to be creating a lot of very unhappy children in order to please their parents. "
Lord Winston, head of the IVF unit at Hammersmith Hospital, questioned the safety of the procedure. " There is only one ethical question, and that is whether these babies might be damaged genetically, " he said.
" It involves tagging chromosomes with something called a fluourochrome, and that might cause long-term genetic damage. It is not regarded as safe for humans. In my view there is a genetic risk. "
Dr Stern said the clinic had not detected any above average incidence of genetic abnormalities in children born with the technique. The results form part of a clinical trial approved by the US Food and Drug Administration.
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