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Breakfast with Frost
Professor Robert Winston
Professor Robert Winston

Please note "BBC Breakfast with Frost" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used

DAVID FROST: Well it used to be one of the excitements of having a baby wondering whether it would be a boy or a girl. Now many parents know the sex of their child, of course, before it is born. Only in very rare cases can they actually choose the sex they want, and only for good medical reasons. But some people think gender selection should be more widely available for parents who want to balance their families, for example. In a moment I'll be talking to Suzi Leather, the head of the organisation which regulates fertility treatment in Britain, welcome, welcome.

Suzi Leather
Suzi Leather

DAVID FROST: And to the man you just heard described as the greatest Britain, did you hear that by Rory Bremner? Professor Robert Winston. But first of all the view of one doctor who thinks parents should have the choice.

PROFESSOR GEDIS GRUDZINSKIAS (FERTILITY DOCTOR): Just a couple of weeks ago, in the course of an interview with a woman and her husband, who sought fertility treatment, this question arose. And this lady said is it possible for us to determine the gender of the embryos before they're returned and I said well it's possible but the law doesn't permit it. And she went on to say that the reason - when I asked why she raised the question - she went on to say that she had two sons already, it was her husband's second marriage and she had two stepsons, and in the immediate family, in the younger generation, there were only boys. And she desperately wanted to have a daughter and I felt very sympathetic with that view and it seemed to me that here is a very, very worthy situation and since the technology is available, and all the evidence to date in this sort of situation is that it is as safe as it can be, then perhaps the law should be reviewed.

DAVID FROST: Perhaps the law should be reviewed, he says. I'm coming to you in a second Suzi but straight to you Robert, what is your reaction as you hear that?

ROBERT WINSTON: Well I think I'm worried about two things, first of all - Rory Bremner touched on something very important - one of the key issues for me, in our society, is that fertility treatment is very underfunded and marginalised as a serious medical treatment and sex selection, I think, is a bit of an irrelevancy, and it worries me that people will see this as yet another trivial area for medical treatment when actually it isn't a key issue for fertility patients, and that's why I'm not sure I'm really in favour of the HFEA regulating it because I think it's got more important jobs to do. I actually don't mind whether people can choose the sex of the baby - in fact humans have been trying to do it for 3000 years. But there is a real issue about the safety of the technique.

DAVID FROST: The safety of the technique?


DAVID FROST: But it doesn't worry the man acting God sort of idea? A woman acting as God?

ROBERT WINSTON: Well we give antibiotics to people when they're dying or when they're not well, that's acting God. I mean acting God is using the tools of creation to try and improve human life, human existence. I don't think that that's a huge problem. I, I'm not entirely convinced that it's a very important issue.

DAVID FROST: Why did you feel that the time had come for a review of the current situation? Do you feel that since the last review people's attitudes have changed or what?

SUZI LEATHER: Well we were invited by the government to do this review. We last asked the public in 1993 what they thought of sex selection and people then thought that sex selection for social reasons, like balancing families, was really rather trivial. They did accept it to avoid serious sex-linked disease and I think that would be the consensus now.


SUZI LEATHER: But there's been changes in the techniques, techniques which were developed in the States by the US Department of Agriculture in animal husbandry, to be able to determine the sex of farmed animals, is now being applied to humans. Now in the States there's no regulation at all, anybody can have sex selection for whatever reason. Here, as you've said, we only allow it so far for avoiding serious sex-linked disease. The Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority thinks that the public should have a say about this and in sense I think, I mean our consultation is open to everybody, individuals, any organisations, I don't think they're the experts in this, I think that we all have a right to say what we think and I hope as many people as possible will respond to our public consultation - you can get that on our website.

DAVID FROST: Because one of the ways in which people worry about this, and don't find it, you know, so trivial, is obviously this area of, not necessarily this society but in some societies where it's the boys, it's the men who do all the money-earning and so on, that you could end up, if we had that power over sex selection, with a 2-1 population ... somewhere.

SUZI LEATHER: Absolutely. I mean in China we have a very big imbalance.

ROBERT WINSTON: In the long it's going to happen.

DAVID FROST: It's going to happen?

ROBERT WINSTON: Well, I mean that's right, you do have a big imbalance, but then if you have more men then women become more valuable, so the pendulum swings back again. But this issue about the American Department of Agriculture, of course, this actually was a technique that was first developed in Cambridge, in England, by Chris Polge, and it involves attaching a fluorescent dye to the sperm.

SUZI LEATHER: That particular method.

ROBERT WINSTON: And, and that actually is what worries me because we don't know, in the long term, what damage that might possibly do to the DNA. And I think that's really an issue that needs to be sorted out very carefully with long term observations.


ROBERT WINSTON: The fact that the Americans are doing it doesn't really persuade me that necessarily we should be embracing it.

SUZI LEATHER: No. I mean I think there are, the issue of the balance between the sexes is a very real one. In the States, between a quarter and a third of parents, prospective parents, say they would like to use this technique. So this is not, this is not a small minority, there's quite a lot of people saying they would like to be able to choose the sex of their child. If we look at countries like China, we look at the Punjab, particularly, in India, there's now a fantastic imbalance between the sexes. The normal balance is about 105 boys to a hundred girls. There we have now about 120 boys to 100 girls. Now you can say it's okay, it will all even out in the end, but meanwhile you have a large number of men, there's too many men, literally, for people to be able to get married, have kids, what are they all going to do? Some of the thinking is that they'll get into uniforms.

DAVID FROST: ... nine to one, which was good for the one, namely the girl. But as a practising Christian, does the Bible have any message for you on this - I know it's not your body.

SUZI LEATHER: I think that many religious groups will have quite profound objections to this. We're asking everybody to give their views, other people will say why shouldn't I choose the sex of my child, I can choose when to have a child, why not the sex of the child? Other people will think, actually children are different, this is taking the commodification of people rather too far.

DAVID FROST: And what about this postscript here - this is The Sunday Times today - "cloned human about to be born." Is that true? And is that desirable or undesirable do we think?

SUZI LEATHER: I think it's, it's highly, it's highly undesirable, it's also would be a criminal offence in this country - I don't think that there's a risk that it will happen here. World-wide, Robert? I think it may happen one day.

ROBERT WINSTON: I'm sure it will happen one day but I think the truth is that the risk to that infant is so great in terms of just physical damage that really that the courts will decide eventually and the madman who decides to clone human beings in the way that's been described there, I think really are an irrelevancy to the real issues in reproductive medicine.

DAVID FROST: Thank you both very much indeed. A great joy to have you with us.


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