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David Mittleman
David Mittleman
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Early Fetal Sex Test Raises Ethical Concerns

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Boy or girl: it’s usually the first thing people want to know after learning that they are pregnant. Thanks to advances in medical research, couples can now know the sex of their baby much earlier than before. However, the ability to learn the sex of the child so early on in a pregnancy is raising some serious ethical concerns.

Prior to the new testing, expectant parents couldn’t know the sex of their child until the second trimester using methods such as ultrasound. However, a simple new blood test can answer that question within the first seven weeks. Naturally, families with a history of gender-linked diseases will welcome the information, since it can help to identify at-risk babies earlier on. Some bioethics experts, on the other hand, are concerned that couples may use the information to select the sex of their child.

The blood test works by scanning the mother’s blood for fetal DNA, specifically for the Y or male chromosome that would be present if she was pregnant with son. Overall, early testing results were correct 94.8% of the time when detecting that a boy would be born, and 98.9% of the time for girls. There is a small margin of error–but enough so that ethics experts are becoming worried. For example, Art Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania recently stated that while he understands that parents would want to know if their child was at a high risk of a serious medical problem, he also argues that:

…doctors shouldn’t offer the test, companies shouldn’t offer it, and we should tell people that’s not a good reason to have an abortion [to select the sex of a child].

However, currently, this is mostly a moot point in the U.S. since the test costs upwards of $400 and has very limited availability. Nevertheless, if the bloodtest should be made widely available in the U.S., Caplan maintains that professional guidelines must be established to prevent abortions based on sex selection.