‘People have all kinds of fertility needs’

Britain's regulations on choosing the gender of your baby should be loosened up, argues a London fertility expert

Tessa Mayes

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Professor Gedis Grudzinskas, medical director at the London fertility treatment centre, The Bridge Centre, and the Centre for Reproductive Medicine at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, talked to Tessa Mayes about why the British regulations on ‘sex selection’ of babies should be loosened up.

‘People choose their partner’s physical, intellectual and other characteristics in everyday life all the time – so the issue of whether technology can help people with fertility problems to do this has always been on their agenda.

‘Currently, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) forbids the selection of the gender of an embryo during infertility treatment if the couple wants to do this for social reasons (rather than to select embryos without genetic diseases, for example).

‘Yet already, people are using science to select genetic characteristics – including hair or eye colour – from anonymous egg or sperm donors. In the USA, people have even more details about the genetic characteristics, including photographs of donors.

‘People have all kinds of fertility needs. Several years ago, I recall a woman whose husband was sterile. They were a professional couple and they obtained donor sperm from the husband’s brothers. The couple didn’t want to know the identity of the donor so we used the sperm on an anonymous basis.

‘Technology has also been used to select the genes of an embryo for the prevention of disease or to stop early death. Theoretically, this gene therapy technology could be used to determine other characteristics, like intelligence, eye colour, body shape. But this idea is ahead of its time. We don’t yet know the long-term consequences of gene therapy to the embryo and we need to know whether it’s worth the risk to use it for something other than to prevent disease. Society needs cautiously to develop its views on how this therapy can be used, so that it is comfortable with the decision.

‘For example, we need to look carefully at the logic that prohibits the use of preimplantation genetic diagnosis [the genetic testing of an embryo prior to implantation in the uterus] for couples who have a family of several sons and who want a baby girl, or vice versa.

‘Why not consider amending the rules for these families? If the technology is available, which it is, and it’s effective and safe, why not apply it for gender selection? One way of tackling the reservations that society has about this is to offer the embryos that aren’t chosen by a family for donation. This way, if a couple chooses to select a female embryo, another family can have a spare, donated male embryo. This approach would seem to help many and hurt nobody. A recent study we carried out indicates that an increasing number of people are beginning to see merit in this.

‘I’m sympathetic with the Masterton’s case, the Scottish couple who want to have a baby girl after their daughter died in an accident and they were left with a family of boys. I believe the HFEA could be lobbied to persuade them to change their position with regard to this family.

‘There are patients who ring the Bridge Centre inquiring about gender selection, but we have to tell them that it is currently prohibited in the UK and therefore it’s not possible. We refer those couples to centres abroad in Europe, the Gulf region and the USA. I do believe that the HFEA will have to look at this issue again. The American Society of Reproductive Medicine has started a debate to look at situations in which gender selection is appropriate – and eventually, I believe, we will have to consider liberalising the regulations in the UK too.’

Tessa Mayes contributes to the Sunday Times (London). Email info@tessa.mayes.co.uk.

Read on:

Making babies, by Tessa Mayes

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