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ss triple helix - winter 2004,  HFEA ban on sex selection - The right decision for the wrong reason

HFEA ban on sex selection - The right decision for the wrong reason

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) has advised the government to ban fertility clinics from using sex selection for non-medical reasons.[1] More than 80% of respondents to the HFEA consultation document Sex Selection: choice and responsibility in human reproduction were opposed to using sex selection techniques for anything other than preventing the birth of a baby with a sex linked genetic disorder such as haemophilia.

The HFEA last held a consultation on sex selection in 1993, and in 1994 licensed sex selective PGD (pre-implantation genetic diagnosis) so that embryos affected with serious sex-linked disorders could be identified and destroyed. 'Social' sex selection was not permitted at that time, but since then techniques for sperm sorting, by gradient or flow cytometry methods, have improved.

Many CMF members will feel that sex selection, even for the prevention of severe disability, stigmatises, devalues and discriminates against vulnerable people who have as much right to care and protection as any of us.[2] But we can be thankful at least that the HFEA has advised a ban on sex selection procedures for 'family balancing' or 'personal preference'. Children are gifts not commodities. They are not designed to meet our preferences but given into our care as unique people with dignity and status who are worthy of the utmost respect. Sex selection offends that dignity and runs counter to the unconditional acceptance that each child deserves. Had social sex selection been approved, it would have led to some parents demanding the 'right' to choose 'designer babies' on the basis of biological characteristics other than sex.

Sex selection is a global issue. In some regions of India the ratio between the sexes is as low as 800 girls to every 1,000 boys.[3] Sex selection practices in China have resulted in a large number of men without wives, and a black market in women has resulted. The UK is a multi-cultural society, and some of our citizens live with cultural pressures that prefer children of a specific sex - we are not immune to the population effects that are witnessed elsewhere. But even if we were, our opposition to practices in China and India that favour male children would be hypocritical if we legitimised social sex selection here.

But, having said that, in apparently basing its ruling on public opinion rather than moral principle, the HFEA has made the right decision but for the wrong reason; and risks becoming future hostage to the shifting sands of consensus.

  1. Sex Selection: options for regulation. HFEA 2003; 12 November
  2. Wyatt J. Sex Selection. CMF Files 2003; 21
  3. Sen A. Missing women - revisited. BMJ 2003; 327:1297 (6 December)
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