British Govt. Prohibits Using Sex-Selection Technology

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Nov 13, 2003   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

British Govt. Prohibits Using Sex-Selection Technology

by Paul Nowak Staff Writer
November 13, 2003

London, England ( — Couples in the U.K. are now prohibited from using medical technology to select the sex of their children, following the British Government’s consultation with the fertility watchdog group Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA).

Health Secretary John Reid issued a statement that parents should not be allowed to try to create a "balanced" family by using new techniques such as "sperm sorting" and preimplantation genetic diagnosis, unless there are "compelling" medical reasons to do so. These "compelling" reasons were defined as preventing rare genetic disorders, such as hemophilia.

"This is a much better outcome than we had expected.  We feared that the HFEA would endorse social sex selection, or ‘family balancing,’" said Jack Scarisbrick, National Chairman of LIFE, a British pro-life group. "It appears they have listened to popular opinion and to the British Medical Association’s ethics committee."

"We are, however, concerned that only the status quo has been maintained and sex selection is still permitted on medical grounds," Scarisbrick said. "Sex selection for babies with sex-linked disorders is as eugenic in spirit as the abortion of babies with Down’s syndrome."

According to a survey of UK residents, 80% of those questioned opposed sex selection on social grounds though over 60% favored sex selection on medical grounds.

While the technology for sex selection is not currently available in Britain except from unlicensed practitioners, UK couples have been known to go to other countries, including the U.S. in order to select the sex of their children.

Sperm-sorting involves separating sperm according to whether they carry male or female chromosomes so a woman can be inseminated with sperm of the desired sex via artificial insemination or in vitro fertilization. The procedure was first developed for use on farm animals. It has an 80-90% success rate and is currently unregulated.

Pre-implantation genetic diagnosis involves the creation of human embryos, as is done for in vitro fertilization, except that the embryos are genetically tested to determine sex, and only those that are desired are implanted. Those that do not match the genetic profile of the parent’s wishes are discarded.

Reid said ministers would look into the situation to see if adjustments to the law are necessary or if it will be effective, considering developments of the technology in other countries.