Sex Selection – Present LegislationEmbryo and the Law

The HFE Act 2008 states that sex of an embryo may be determined for purposes of sex selection:

In a case where there is a particular risk that any resulting child will have or develop
1. a gender-related serious physical or mental disability,
2. a gender-related serious illness, or
3. any other gender-related serious medical condition.

The Act also expressly states that sex selection is not to be permitted in any form for purely social reasons.

Present areas of debate

The first HFEA consultation with regards to sex selection in 1993 found that 67% of respondents were opposed to sex selection for social reasons. A further consultation in 2002/3 supported this initial consensus with 80% of respondents opposing sperm sorting or PGD nor non-medical reasons.

Upon further questioning of respondents, the HFEA found that in common with other uses of PGD, many people feared that the unrestricted use of sex selection would place us at risk of sliding down a slippery slope towards completely unrestricted procreative autonomy and subsequent “designer babies”.

As a father in the 2002 HFEA consultation summarised:

People always want more, if they know they can, they will. And they’ll argue ‘who wouldn’t want to have a more intelligent child?’ Of course that child would have a better life, and if we allow people to choose the sex of their child, we wouldn’t have a leg to stand on when they start on that road.

Another concern over permitting unrestricted sex selection is that the practise would lead to an imbalance in the sexes. There exist countries, such as China and India, as well as cultures, in which male children are preferred to females, thus creating an already established imbalance between the sexes. It is feared that to allow unrestricted sex selection would only worsen this problem, particularly since males are often favoured as heirs in matters of inheritance. As one Muslim father commented in the 2002 HFEA consensus:

Having a boy is like magic gold but it feeds discrimination.

Lemonick also highlights that polls in the USA have indicated that an ideal family would have a boy as the eldest child. Boys are often more assertive and dominant by nature; characteristics often mirrored in elder children. We would therefore end up with a society of “doubly dominant” male first borns (Lemonick 1999).

This presents a few key potential problems for female children and women in general. Firstly, it should be stressed that sex selection is not 100% reliable. What would happen if a couple purposefully selected to have a male child for whatever reason and then found out that the foetus that the mother ended up carrying was in fact a girl? Would the couple choose to abort that child; or, should the child be allowed to live, would the girl’s welfare be guaranteed in a household which had so desperately wanted a boy?

As a result, many have expressed concerns that a combination of these factors may increase already existing gender injustices and sex discrimination, should sex selection for non-medical reasons be permitted.

However, there are those who argue that in common with testing for abnormalities, sex selection should be permitted for a specific set of reasons, such as the loss of child from the family.

Case Study: Alan and Louise Masterton

In 2001 Alan and Louise Masterton travelled to Rome and paid £6000 to a fertility clinic to preferentially select a female embryo to enable them to have the little girl they so desperately wanted.

The couple already had four sons and had tragically lost their only daughter in an accident in 1999. They remained insistent that they weren’t trying to replace their daughter but simply wanted to re-establish a female element that the loss of their daughter had taken from the family.

The Mastertons decision to use an Italian-based fertility clinic was made following the HFEA refusing to grant permission for a UK clinic to assist the couple to carry out sex selection for what the authority deemed to be a purely social reason.

Whether the Mastertons appeal to the HFEA were deemed justified or not, the law did not permit sex-selection for any social reasons. This legislation has been upheld in the 2008 Act and so for the time being couples such as the Mastertons will have to seek help abroad should they wish to have a child of a particular sex for any non-medical reason, regardless of how compelling their individual circumstances may be.