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IVF sex selection ban is unjustified, says ethicist

8 July 2013
Appeared in BioNews 712

A report produced by bioethicists from Keele University has concluded that there is no justifiable basis on which to ban IVF sex selection in the UK.

The report, Eugenics and the Ethics of Selective Reproduction, was authored by Professor Stephen Wilkinson, now at Lancaster University, and Dr Eve Garrard, now of the University of Manchester. It concluded that it would be ethical to offer techniques to choose the sex of future children, based on the parents' preferences.

'People who would prefer their new baby to be of a particular sex often have their own very personal reasons for this, to do with their family's particular circumstances of history. We didn't find any ethical arguments sufficient to justify a blanket ban on these people seeking sex selection', said Professor Wilkinson.

The report examined 'social' IVF sex selection in a British context and found 'no reason' to 'expect harm to future children or wider society if these techniques were made available for social reasons within our regulated fertility treatment sector'. The techniques involve analysing cells at the embryonic or pre-embryonic stage in vitro to determine their sex before implantation. Sex selection is only currently permitted in the UK to avoid the birth of babies with sex-linked inherited disorders.

Commenting on the ethical opposition to choosing the sex of future children, Professor Jackie Leach Scully, co-director of Policy Ethics and Life Sciences Research Centre at Newcastle University, said: 'One of the arguments against it is the possibility of sexism because by choosing or wanting to choose the sex of your child you are exhibiting some kind of preference and that would be sexism'.

However, the report found that discrimination and sexism would not be relevant factors for many in choosing the sex of a baby. Instead, it said some people might express a preference for a sex for family balancing reasons and place value on a particular sex being represented in a family. Concerns about sexism, although potentially legitimate, were not considered significant enough to justify the current ban. 'The less sexist society is, the more acceptable sex selection is likely to be', Professor Wilkinson said.

It is known that in some areas of China and India, significant imbalances in the sex ratios of certain populations have arisen, despite 'social' sex selection being illegal. In some Chinese provinces there can be over 130 boys under five years old for every 100 girls. These imbalances have shown to cause wider social problems, with some men unable to find a long-term partner. The authors conclude, however, that a sex ratio imbalance would not occur in the general population if sex-selection techniques were to be offered within a strong regulatory framework.

The authors of the study concluded that while there is no justifiable reason to ban 'social' IVF sex selection, it would not be right for sex selection procedures to be funded by the taxpayer. They also agreed that proper regulations would need to put in place to reduce the chance of any harmful effects occurring as the result of sex selection treatments being carried out for non-medical reasons.

Ethicists find UK ban on embryo sex selection 'unjustifiable'
Keele University (press release) |  2 July 2013
IVF ban on baby sex selection is not justified, says ethicist
The Telegraph |  3 July 2013
IVF gender selection ban ‘has no ethical basis’
The Scotsman |  5 July 2013
Medical ethicist: Ban on sex selection of IVF embryos is not justified
The Independent |  3 July 2013
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