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Merits of new technology debated in sex selection

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FAIRFAX, Va. (BP)–A technique that can help couples select the sex of a baby would best be limited to trying to prevent diseases, according to two Southern Baptist specialists in medical ethics.
The method, developed by the Genetics & IVF Institute in Fairfax, Va., was described in a paper published Sept. 9 in the journal Human Reproduction.
The method uses a machine originally developed for cattle breeding, in which sperm are sorted by the amount of DNA they contain. Sperm with X chromosomes, which produce girls, contain about 2.8 percent more DNA than those with Y chromosomes, which produce boys when one is joined with an X chromosome. A three-year use of the method via artificial insemination resulted in 15 girls and two boys being conceived in 17 conceptions in which parents asked for daughters.
Most of the couples wanted to choose the baby’s sex for “family balancing,” Joseph Schulman, director of the Genetics & IVF Institute, told The New York Times. He said a few wanted sex selection because they were at risk of having babies with genetic diseases that affect boys almost exclusively.
Ben Mitchell, assistant professor of Christian ethics at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Ky., and consultant on biomedical and life issues for the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, noted the new method takes place before conception.
It is “entirely different than after conception when we have a human being. Then we have a moral obligation not to harm that human being,” Mitchell said.
The new technology possibly could be of use “in the case of a sex-linked genetic disorder, where we know that if a child were conceived that was a boy or girl, it would, in fact, carry this disease gene,” Mitchell added.
He added using the technique for gender selection for its own sake should be repudiated, describing this as “gender discrimination of a most basic sort.”
“We don’t have the ability to look forward and know the results of these choices,” Mitchell said. “God in his providence determines that.”
William Cutrer of Dallas, an obstetrician-gynecologist and area director of the Christian Medical and Dental Society, said selecting female offspring to avoid having a male child born with an abnormality transmitted through the Y chromosome “could be a reasonable use of the technology,” The danger, he said, “is thinking that a child of value is only one that is genetically perfect.”
Cutrer, a Southern Baptist, reflected that in weighing such matters, “the test for us is whether we as a Christian community are prepared to live sacrificially. Many would come down on the side that we can trust God in the area of reproductive decisions. An answer of love from the Christian community could come down on both sides in that particular instance where a sex selection might [result in a child who would] have a more normal life.”
Among other reactions to the new method, USA Today in a Sept. 11 editorial noted that “researchers who use the sperm-sorting procedure hope it will reduce the number of abortions.”
Banning the technique, USA Today said, “won’t end public demand for ways to select a baby’s sex, a quest that has fueled folk cures and many a scam. Instead, couples would seek the $2,500 procedure underground — or overseas.”
Also in USA Today Sept. 11, Jeremy Rifkin wrote an “Opposing View” piece, contending, “With Americans already spending billions on cosmetic surgery to improve their looks and on psychotropic drugs to alter their moods, using genetic therapies to program their unborn children seems a likely prospect.”
According to Rifkin, author of “The Biotech Century: Harnessing the Gene and Remaking the World,” “What makes the new language of molecular biology subtly chilling is that it risks creating flawless archetypes to which to aspire — a new man and woman, like us, but without the warts and frailties that define our essence.
“Then how tolerant will society be to individuals who deviate from some socially acceptable norm?” Rifkin asked. “Will we see those who have disabilities as mistakes that should have been prevented from coming into the world?
“Sex selection is the first leg of a journey in which the gift of life becomes transformed by modern biotechnologies into a customized product purchased in the genetic marketplace,” he declared.
In Focus on the Family’s Citizen Issues Alert Sept. 22, Nigel Cameron, who chairs the board of the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity at Trinity International University, was quoted as saying, “In most cases this technique will be used to create designer babies. … [promoting] the idea that the wanted child is the one you design.”
H. David Hager, a physician and fellow with the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and a member of Focus on the Family’s Physicians Resource Council, agreed.
“We’re losing sight of the fact that birth is a miracle of God; it’s becoming ‘something that I can control,’” Hager told the weekly newsletter of the Focus on the Family ministry.
“These things won’t be confined to special cases; they’ll become consumer products, and people will be following fads and fashions,” Cameron said. “The more power you put in their hands, the more liable they are to abuse it.”