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Monday, 5 November, 2001, 10:37 GMT
Sex selection inquiry ordered
Fertility techniques are developing rapidly
The government has ordered an investigation into new techniques that dramatically improve the chances of couples choosing the sex of their baby.

Ministers are becoming increasingly concerned that legal loopholes are allowing private clinics to offer couples the chance to select their baby's gender for social reasons.

At least one of the techniques may well not be safe

Ruth Deech
There are also fears that the techniques may not be safe.

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), which regulates fertility services in the UK, has been asked to investigate.

Licensed clinics are not allowed to offer gender selection services except for medical reasons.

However, a legal loophole means private unlicensed clinics can.

There are believed to be at least three unlicensed clinics, acting outside the remit of the HFEA, offering such services to couples.


The controversial service has been attacked by the Catholic Church, members of the British Medical Association.

There are fears that it could lead to a preponderance of boys being born as some families seek male heirs.

Lord Winston, the Labour peer and fertility expert, who has warned that the technique could lead to genetic defects in babies.

HFEA officials said there was evidence that three private clinics in London, Birmingham and Glasgow were offering sperm sorting at a price of up to 3,500 a time.

There are at least three different techniques that are currently in use. These are:

  • analysing the gender of the embryo
  • using a fluorescent dye to differentiate between sperm carrying the female X chromosome and the male Y chromosome
  • Spinning sperm at high speed to separate out the two types

Attempting the first of these without the go-ahead of the HFEA would certainly be illegal, as it involves the creation of an embryo outside the body.

British law says that parents are only able to select the sex of their child if there is a substantial risk that gender-related hereditary or genetic diseases could be passed on.

Outside remit

Ruth Deech, HFEA chairman, told the BBC Radio Four Today programme that some private clinics applied the techniques put them outside the remit of the her authority.

She said: "We control the creation of embryos outside the body, and the use of stored sperm, eggs and embryos.

"These new techniques get around that because they use sperm that is freshly produced and they don't store it."

"What we are worried about it that at least one of the techniques may well not be safe because it uses a fluorescent dye that it used to bind on to the sperm.

"There are all sorts of problems that might arise from that and I think no-one sensible would want to take that particular risk."

Ms Deech said the authority would re-examine its policy on whether sex selection should be allowed for social reasons.

"We have acted consistently in response to public opinion that sex selection just because you would like to have a boy or girl should not be allowed."

Ruth Deech, HFEA
"These techniques may not be safe"
See also:

06 Mar 01 | Health
Rise of the 'fertility tourist'
05 Jul 01 | Health
Why choose a baby's sex?
05 Jul 01 | Fertility conference 2001
Concern over baby sex 'guarantee'
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