A small but growing number of Irish people are taking gender selection into their own hands. DR JOANNA GRIFFIN examines the reasons behind this, the methods and the ethics.
When Marie asked the sonographer at the end of her 20-week scan if she could determine her baby’s sex, she was not prepared for the answer she got. “When I was told the baby was a boy I was heartbroken, to say the least. After three boys I really wanted to finally have a little girl. I know that people say: ‘You should just be happy with a healthy child, you are being selfish,’ but I can’t help the way I feel.”
It’s one thing to wish for a baby boy or girl but quite another to go to extraordinary lengths to make it happen. A small but growing number are taking baby-making a step further and paying huge sums of money for the guarantee of the gender of their choice. Termed ‘gender disappointment’, parents who discover their child is not the gender they had hoped for describe feelings ranging from shock to depression and feeling ‘robbed’ of the gender they desired.
Those affected often find solace in the anonymity of parenting websites such as In-gender.com, where a community swap ‘gender-swaying’ techniques and discuss their struggles with their disappointment.
David and Victoria Beckham’s revelation that their fourth child was a girl has fuelled speculation that they used high-tech gender determination to ensure their baby is female. While this is merely hearsay, there has certainly been a huge increase in couples actively trying to conceive a child of a particular gender.
What are these genderswaying techniques and is there any scientific evidence that they work?
This method is based around the theory that Y sperm can swim faster than X sperm. Therefore, intercourse on the day of ovulation increases the chances of conceiving a boy as the Y sperm will reach the egg first. It is also claimed that female sperm survive longer in the female reproductive tract and therefore, intercourse in the days prior to ovulation increases the chances of conceiving a girl. It is an easy, cheap and non-invasive method that anyone can try at home.
This is a sperm-spinning technique that aims to separate faster-swimming Y sperm from slower-swimming X sperm. Sperm of the desired gender are inserted directly into the uterus via artificial insemination. It is unregulated in the UK and typically costs €5,000 for four rounds of treatment.
Extreme at-home swaying
Extreme at-home swaying includes the purchase of microscopes, centrifuges and incubators for at-home experiments. Sperm is separated after being incubated in chicken egg white. The mixture is then self-inseminated. Doctors warn these home experiments can be dangerous and cause reproductive tract infections.
Dr Jonas Method
This method asserts that conception can be predicted from the stars and the sex of the child predetermined by choosing the hour of conception according to the moon’s astrological sign. It also bizarrely claims birth defects can be avoided by employing astrology to choose the best moment of conception.
Fertility experts have long disputed the success rate claims made by the Ericsson and Shettles methods. Although reported as fact on many websites, so far researchers have found no differences in swimming speeds between human X sperm and Y sperm and there is some suggestion that, in fact, male sperm may live longer than female sperm. A paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine concluded that: “For practical purposes, the timing of sexual intercourse in relation to ovulation has no influence on the sex of the baby.”
Medical studies have also shown that the Ericsson method does not alter the X:Y ratio of sperm and, following the procedure, the sperm is still 50/50 male/female sperm.
With odds of 50 per cent of achieving the desired gender by any method, successes of extreme at-home gender swaying and the Jonas method can be explained statistically rather than by the influence of the moon or sperm spinning.
Preimplantation Genetic Determination
Preimplantation Genetic Determination (PGD) is an in vitro fertilisation (IVF) technique in which embryos are created outside the womb and then tested for genetic disorders and gender. Healthy embryos of the gender the parents desire are then implanted and pregnancy and birth continue as normal. It’s basically IVF with an add-on and is almost 100 per cent effective in delivering the preferred sex.
PGD was originally developed to help couples with serious genetic disorders reduce the risk of passing on their condition. Gender testing was employed to select embryos where a genetic disease was passed on to either male or female children. For example, Duchenne muscular dystrophy only affects males. PGD is unregulated in Ireland and is illegal except for medical reasons in many European countries, Canada, India and Australia. It is, however, legal and unregulated in the US. Affluent couples are getting around laws banning sex selection in their countries by travelling to the US for IVF that can give them the boy or girl that they want.
Dr Jeffrey Steinberg is Director of The Fertility Institutes in Los Angeles that offer sex selection as one of their services. “Our methodology is based purely on science and science doesn’t lie. XY gives a boy and XX a girl – you can’t argue with genetics,” he says. When Steinberg opened a second clinic in New York, the influx of European patients increased dramatically. “30 to 50 per cent of our patients are European, with a high proportion of those being Irish. They are typically couples in their mid-thirties with two children of the opposite sex to the one they’re seeking,” he adds.
Opponents to gender selection say it paves the way to a future where affluent parents will choose their baby’s hair colour, eye colour etc. They also argue that US doctors are catering to the same gender bias that has led to female infanticide in China and India. Clients from these countries generally travel to the US to ensure they have only male children and not for family balancing reasons.
One of the pioneers of PDG, Dr Mark Hughes, is not happy with the direction this technology is taking. “I went into medicine to treat and cure disease and the last time I checked gender is not a disease,” he says.
However, reproductive technologies are not going to go away and genetic health may well be the wave of the future. To his opponents, Steinberg says: “We’ve been on a slippery slope now for 20 years. At what point do you say it’s not such a slippery slope?”
According to Professor Laura Purdy at Wells College New York, in some societies, sex selection of males is clearly sexist. In other societies, there is not a pronounced preference for males, and sex selection may not be particularly harmful.
If couples have a strong preference for a boy or a girl, the scientifically sound PGD method has a proven track record. However, this guarantee of success costs in the region of $20,000 per cycle. Therefore, it may be wiser to hope for a healthy baby of either sex.