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UK Agency Recommends Stronger Rules on Sex Selection

Genetic Crossroads
November 24th, 2003

On November 12, the United Kingdom's Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA) recommended that sex selection for social reasons continue to be prohibited, and that an important loophole in the regulation of sex selection be closed.

The HFEA currently oversees embryo screening (also known as pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, or PGD), and has allowed the procedure to be used for sex selection only when a future child would be at risk of a serious sex-linked disorder. Because new sex selection techniques that involve sperm sorting are not currently within its mandate, a parliamentary act is needed to implement the recommended change.

The HFEA has just completed a year-long review of sex selection policies that it originally adopted in 1993. The reconsideration is thought to have been prompted by the development of new sperm sorting procedures such as the one currently being advertised as a means of "family balancing" in the New York Times and on the Internet (see Genetic Crossroads #33).

The review included a public consultation, in which 80% of 600 respondents opposed sex selection for "non-medical reasons." The HFEA also solicited expert opinion on sex selection, and commissioned research on the scientific, technical, social and ethical issues it raises. Agency chair Suzi Leather commented in a press release, "[W]e are not persuaded that the likely benefits of permitting sex selection for social reasons are strong enough to outweigh the possible harm that might be done."

The recommendations were officially welcomed by the British Fertility Society, the professional organization of the assisted reproduction industry. The chair of the ethics committee of the British Medical Association, Dr. Michael Wilks, said, "Sex selection purely for social reasons is unacceptable."

Supporters of sex selection criticized the HFEA ruling. Bioethicist John Harris asked rhetorically, "If it isn't wrong to wish for a bonny, bouncing baby girl, why would it be wrong to make use of technology to play fairy godmother?" The director of a fertility clinic in Nottingham said that those who want to determine the sex of their child "will now be forced to go abroad"-to countries such as the United States with no regulation of sex selection.

Feminists, women's health advocates, and others have recently expressed concerns about new sex selection methods and the increasing use of sex-selective abortion in South Asia. For a resource packet of recent fact sheets and articles prepared by CGS; the Committee on Women, Population and the Environment; the Center for Health and Gender Equity; and Manavi, see http://www.genetics-and-society.org/resources/sexselection .

Other resources:

"Baby gender selection ruled out," BBC News (Nov 12) http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/3257893.stm

"UK moves to ban human sex selection," New Scientist, (Nov 12)

HFEA document: "Sex Selection: Choice and Responsibility in Human Reproduction," http://www.hfea.gov.uk/AboutHFEA/Consultations

HFEA press release, Nov 12, "HFEA announces recommendations on sex selection," http://www.hfea.gov.uk/PressOffice/Archive/1068631271

Human Genetics Alert Campaign Briefing, "The case against sex selection," (Dec. 2002)


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