Boy or girl?

Nothing lends itself quite so readily to sensationalism than the spectre of genetic manipulation and "designer babies".

So first let us be clear about what is proposed.

The Bioethics Council's recommendations in Who Gets born?, its report to Parliament delivered on Thursday last week, related to in vitro fertilisation (IVF), a fertility treatment for couples unable to produce children naturally.

In this procedure the embryo is created outside the body (the so-called "test-tube") and subsequently implanted into the uterus.

The report was designed to address the formation of guidelines to govern the availability and consequences of a technique called "pre-implantation genetic diagnosis" (PGD) - the testing of such "created" embryos.

Currently, this is permissible on medical grounds - for instance to diagnose for suspected inherited or other genetic conditions - but is illegal on "social" grounds.

That is to say, the sex of any embryo must not be a factor in its implantation.

Gender selection is unlawful under the Human Assisted Reproductive Technology Act 2004.

Penalties for breaches include jail terms of up to five years and a fine of up to $200,000.

The law has not just frowned on it, rather proscribed it in severe terms.

It is similarly illegal in Australia and the United Kingdom but permissible in the United States.

Now, somewhat unexpectedly, the Bioethics Council has said that parents are best placed to decide the sex of their IVF babies.

It has advised the Government that there are insufficient cultural, ethical and spiritual reasons to prohibit the use of PGD for sex selection driven by social imperatives such as "family balancing" - provided the PGD is undertaken at the parents' own cost.

The council seems to be arguing that since the gender of the embryo is readily apparent under PGD, then rather than an arbitrary or incidental decision on the part of a fertility technician, the individuals involved should make the ultimate sensitive decision as a final step in the technology-assisted reproductive process.

On the face of it, there is much that could be said in favour of this, not least its logic.

The parents-to-be will have made a number of challenging, potentially life-changing decisions to progress their status to this point and it can be argued, as the council has indeed done, that there are simply insufficient reasons to withold that final decision from the persons involved.

But the council has also acknowledged that in its research it encountered widely held public concern about the use of PGD for sex selection; and that further investigations into the reasons for this concern are warranted.

It seems to want to have a bob each way but then capitulates in favour of liberalisation.

But there should be no great mystery as to why there is public concern.

It comes back to such broad concepts as "interfering with nature", "designing babies", manipulating genetic material for shallow or unethical ends, and so on.

For while the council was recommending sex selection in the most narrow of circumstances, many would see the move as a dangerous precedent: an open invitation for the advancement of other selection crtieria for "social" reasons.

Whatever one's cultural or spiritual background and beliefs, there is something inherently disturbing about the prospect of a world in which babies are pre-selected according to a set of supposedly desirable genetic traits and characteristics - which is where opponents of the sex selection report can see this ultimately headed.

The council's advice also would seem to fly in the face of decades of social progress on gender.

Director of Otago University's Bioethics Centre Prof Donald Evans has said that allowing social grounds for sex selection of embryos during fertility treatment would be "winding the social clock back in New Zealand by at least a generation and a half".

He said last week it would be "very much against the spirit" of important social changes in New Zealand over the past several decades, particularly in relation to gender equality.

It could in fact encourage a move in the opposite direction - which is one further reason why members of Parliament presented with Who Gets Born? should respectfully hand it back and suggest the council go away and have a rethink.

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