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Prenatal tests are misused for sex-selection in the UK

24 September 2018
Appeared in BioNews 968

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.'

Early gender tests 'leading to selective abortions of girls in UK'
The Independent |  17 September 2018
Labour calls for ban on early fetus sex test
BBC |  17 September 2018
Naz Shah MP calls for restrictions on early baby gender tests
Bradford Telegraph & Argus |  17 September 2018
12 July 2021 - by Christina Burke 
Genetic data from millions of prenatal blood samples are being used for population research by China, claims Reuters...
24 May 2021 - by Dr Hazar Haidar, Professor Vardit Ravitsky and Dr Anne-Marie Laberge 
Non-invasive prenatal testing (NIPT) was first introduced in 2011, when breakthroughs in sequencing technology allowed the analysis of cell-free fetal DNA (cffDNA) in maternal blood to detect genetic abnormalities in the foetus, such as trisomy 21 (Down's syndrome), with greater accuracy than previous screening tests...
4 November 2019 - by Emma Laycock 
The US National Council on Disability (NCD) has published a new report calling for greater oversight of genetic testing, particularly prenatal testing...
29 July 2019 - by Dr Linda Layne 
The gestational surrogacy memoirs of five European and American gay dads and one heterosexual single-father-by-choice suggest that sex selection for sons may be occurring...
8 October 2018 - by Dr Sam Sherratt 
The largest genetic analysis of China's population to date has been carried out on over 140,000 pregnant women, revealing new insights into migration patterns and disease risk in Chinese people...
6 March 2017 - by Nick Meade 
The Nuffield Council of Bioethics' new report on non-invasive prenatal testing is unnecessarily negative and encroaches on women's reproductive choices...
6 March 2017 - by Emma Laycock 
The Nuffield Council on Bioethics has called for a ban on using early prenatal testing to find out the sex or sequence the whole genome of the fetus...
7 November 2016 - by Dr Rachel Huddart 
A more accurate and safer prenatal test for Down's, Edwards' and Patau's syndromes is to be offered by the NHS from 2018, it has been announced...
15 August 2016 - by Jane Fisher and Professor Lyn Chitty 
A central tenet of prenatal testing is to promote reproductive autonomy by providing women with information that can assist in pregnancy management. Bringing NIPT into the NHS will improve an established screening programme...
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