Early sex selection test raises ethical concerns

A private lab located in a Toronto hospital offers results of test on sex of fetus as early as 10 weeks into pregnancy for $380 US.

Women can now find out the sex of the fetus they're carrying as early as 10 weeks into pregnancy, renewing concerns about the practice of gender selection.

For years, expectant parents who've wanted a jump on decorating the nursery could find out a baby's gender or wait until the birth if they wanted to be surprised.

Now technologists can check fetal DNA from a simple blood test. If a Y chromosome is present in the mother's DNA sample then it's a boy.

Expectant parents in Toronto can pay $380 US for the test at a private laboratory.

"In some cultures, families prefer to have boys," said Yuri Melekhovets, who runs the Paragon Genetics lab. "Also, if a family already has several girls and members of the family would like to have a boy, our laboratory can offer one of many tools to help make the selection of the sex of the baby."

In China, where boys are often preferred to girls, the females may be abandoned. The practice has led to a gender imbalance in China, which has about 120 men for every 100 women.

The new technique reduces the potential for infants to be abandoned. Since lab results are available in 10 business days, a mother has time to decide to terminate a pregnancy.

"To me, it will be completely incorrect and not right at all to give suggestions about how family should make life," Melekhovets said.

If there is no medical reason to find out the sex of a fetus early then ethical issues come into play, said Kerry Bowman, a bioethicist at Mount Sinai Hospital.

"It raises a serious issue about justice," said Bowman. "We know that there's been profound discrimination against women for a long time and that's not over, and we run the risk of being complicit with this."

Controversial location

Aside from the ethical controversy surrounding the test itself, there is also a question of whether the laboratory should be run out of a public hospital.

Melekhovets said the lab's location at Humber River Regional Hospital helps the image of the business.

The hospital did not return calls from CBC News.

The provincial Ministry of Health said it's up to each hospital to decide how to use its space.

The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario has ethical guidelines on the practice of sex selection. The lab tests do not break any laws.