A controversial technique that promises to help couples choose the sex of their child is being offered at a Belgian clinic. Fertility specialists in Europe are having ethical concerns.
Just what the doctor ordered.
A fertility centre in Ghent is offering a discreet service to couples who already have one or two children, but want their next to be of the opposite gender.
Describing the service as 'family balancing', Professor Frank Comhaire, a professor of medicine at the University of Ghent, offers parents from across Europe a service that claims to help them choose the sex of their baby.
Neither the couples nor the clinic is breaking any law. There is nothing illegal about practising gender selection in Belgium, but the fact that they are resorting to a controversial 'sperm-sorting' method before its full medical effects are known has caused concern among fertility experts.
It also raises ethical questions regarding the growing debate surrounding 'designer' babies and the engineering of healthy embryos to order . But these issues have not stopped specialists from seeing a new opening in the baby market.
Sperm is sent to the US where sex is determined
Once chromosomes are identified in sperm, a gender specific baby is a reality.
The process begins with a sperm sample being taken at the Ghent clinic. The sperm is then frozen and shipped to a laboratory in America.
Using laser technology, the MicroSort company in Fairfax, Virginia, claims to be able to separate sperm into those bearing the Y-bearing male chromosome and those carrying the X-bearing female chromosome. After separating the sperm, the 'male' and 'female' samples are sent back to Belgium.
Back in Ghent, the woman's eggs are fertilised with the chosen group of sperm, depending on which gender she desires, and out of 10 or 12 embryos created in the laboratory, two will be re-implanted into her womb. Under the 'family balancing' method, the mother is only allowed to have a child of the opposite gender from the child, or children, she already has.
Parents can expect to pay at least 6,300 euro
The costs are high. With enrollment, shipping and analysis, couples are looking at a total price of 6,300 euro ($6,178). This price could almost double if the parents want to be absolutely sure they are getting the baby they desire. Comhaire claims that there is '99 per cent chance of success' after carrying out a pre-implantation diagnosis on the embryo that costs an additional 6,000 euro ($5,884).
Despite the increasing popularity and attraction of the process, the science is still unproved and controversial. The sperm selection technique is currently the subject of a full study by the US Food and Drug Administration, which will analyse its safety and effectiveness, including an assessment of Comhaire's patients.
Internationally, the issue is causing concern. A recent committee set up by the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology, comprising 4,000 doctors, scientists and technicians, could not come to an agreement on whether family balancing was ethically acceptable.
Technology and debate to raise its head in Britain
With the technology on its way to Britain, the issue of gender selection is due to come to the fore and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority is about to embark on a nationwide consultation over the issue.
The authority was asked by the British government to assess the public's view of the matter, particularly as the technology is now racing ahead. As in Belgium, there is no law against gender selection in Britain.
However, several specialists are strongly against the procedure, including Francoise Shenfield, clinical lecturer at University College London, who told the Observer newspaper that she thought the debate was being driven by advances in technology.
"I simply do not feel it is right to be able to choose the sex of your child for no medical reason," she said.
'Family balancing' raises questions on ethical and social levels.
"What worries me most is the messages this gives out to society about the inequality between the sexes. A person is a person, a child is a child, and why should a family with two girls be inherently less 'balanced' than a family with a boy and a girl?"
European nations oppose 'commercial' use of embryos
Other European nations have already expressed concerns regarding the engineering of healthy embryos to fit the whims and desires of parents.
The Italian, German and Dutch governments have all publicly opposed the use of human genetic material in commercial ventures which have no medical advantages.