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25 couples to choose babies' sex

Nov. 2, 2005

by LAUREN MAJOR, reporter

Couples undergoing in vitro fertilization will be able to choose the sex of their baby in a clinical trial at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

Twenty-five couples will participate after going through a screening of questionnaires and interviews to determine their motives for wanting the procedure. Researchers will begin accepting applications in the next two weeks.

"There is a lot of controversy about the ethics of this process. We want to find out what is really going on in the minds of the couples who choose it," said Laurence McCullough, professor at Baylor College of Medicine and one of the investigators in the trial.

The researchers will question the couples about their family values, beliefs about gender, cultural traditions and other factors to see what affects their decision-making process.

Only couples with one or more children of the same sex will be accepted to the study. These couples will be able to ensure that their next child is of the opposite sex, called family balancing.

When the embryos, fertilized in the laboratory, are at the eight-cell stage, one cell will be removed and its DNA scanned to determine its gender. Genetic defects can also be identified from the scan, and only embryos with no defects and of the desired sex will be implanted into the mother's uterus.

Gender selection of embryos is illegal in many countries, including Great Britain and Canada.

Although it is legal in the United States, many groups decry the process as promoting gender discrimination, McCullough said.

Margaret Baier, lecturer in family and consumer sciences, said there are risks when people start valuing one gender over another.

"It really devalues the gift of life," she said.

McCullough said it is important to distinguish between gender selection and family balancing. In this case, the couples are not showing a preference for one gender over another but a desire for a balanced family.

"I can understand someone who has seven boys wanting a girl, but it can still be dangerous. Once you get on the track of trying to design and control who your child will be, it's hard to stop," said Daniel McGee, professor of religion.

Parents have a tendency to try to make their children into what they want, McGee said.

When a parent decides to have a boy or a girl, it is often a part of their plan to have a certain kind of boy or girl -- a star football player or a homecoming queen.

"Parents should help their children discover who they are, not try to manipulate them," McGee said. "Of course parents should pass on their values. But they also need to be open to the wonderful surprises each unique child brings."

From a Christian perspective, the children are not the parents' to design, McGee said. They belong to God, and parents are to be stewards, he added.

"I'm not saying there are no exceptions. If the family had a history of a gender-related disease, they might want to choose the other gender. But that choice is for the good of the child, not of the parents," McGee said.