Prenatal tests offered by private UK clinics are misused for sex-selection and could lead to abortions of female fetuses, according to a BBC investigation.
Non-invasive prenatal testing (NIPT) involves screening fetal DNA in the mother's blood to identify genetic abnormalities, such as Down's syndrome. The technique also enables mothers to find out their baby's sex as early as nine to 10 weeks into pregnancy. However, when the test is implemented within the NHS next month, patients will not be provided with this information.
In contrast, private clinics are revealing gender information from NIPT to expectant mothers. An investigation by BBC Two's Victoria Derbyshire programme has found that thousands of pregnant women are using online forums to discuss sex-selection through NIPT and their concerns about having a baby girl. Further, it found that clinics in Slough, Berkshire, were openly advertising gender determination testing.
Due to concerns that pregnancies could be aborted based on preference for a male child, the Labour Party has called for a ban on parents being told the sex of their baby.
Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford and shadow minister for women and equalities, told the programme that 'cultural practices in some communities, like the South Asian community, have a preference for boys' which is 'forcing them to adopt methods such as NIPT to live up to expectations of family members'.
In UK law, the sex of the baby is not one of the permitted grounds for abortion. However, if a woman is likely to face violence or abuse as a result of giving birth to a baby girl, a termination in the first 24 weeks could be lawful, as the Abortion Act states, if 'continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated, of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman'. The act allows that 'account may be taken of the pregnant woman’s actual or reasonably foreseeable environment'.
Speaking to the BBC, Tom Shakespeare, professor of disability research at Norwich Medical School and chair of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics' NIPT working group, said: 'The desire for sex-selection is a major driver of private-sector testing.
'But countries like China and India have recognised the problem of sex-selective abortion and so it's very difficult to get this information – in India it is illegal.'
If the UK permits the practice of releasing this information, nationals from those countries may travel to the UK for medical tourism, Professor Shakespeare said.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman told the BBC: 'The prenatal test is never meant to be used for determining the sex of a child. We will continue to review the evidence.'