Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Is gender selection of a fetus ethical?

A new maternal blood test can determine a fetus' sex as early as seven weeks into a pregnancy.

This achievement, reported last week in the Journal of the American Medical Association, is a potential boon to parents who fear their children are at risk for a sex-linked condition. If, for example, a particular disease affects only males and a fetus is female, a woman can avoid further invasive tests, such as amniocentesis, which carry a risk of miscarriage.

But this technology is igniting a heated ethical debate before it is even clinically available. Many fear that it will be used for a reason that has nothing to do with medical outcomes. They fear parents will use it for sex selection, aborting healthy fetuses that are of an unwanted sex.

They are probably right.

In countries such as China and India, the cultural preference for boys is well-documented, and parents for years have been using ultrasound and amniocentesis -- followed by abortion -- to avoid giving birth to girls. In some parts of rural India, where basic health care is hardly available, local clinics have sophisticated ultrasound machines used privately -- and illegally -- for sex selection.

Such practices have already skewed sex ratios in these countries. In China in 2005, there were 32 million more men under 20 than women. This has cast a shadow over the young men's prospects of marriage and raised concerns about social instability and expansion of the sex industry. It is bad news, too, for the women who are pressured to perform sex-selective abortions and then suffer the consequences. (more)