Gender Test Raises Questions of Ethics

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All expectant parents are curious about whether their baby is a boy or girl. Now they can know much earlier than ever before: as early as seven weeks into the pregnancy.

But there are ethical concerns about knowing so soon.

If you want to know whether your baby is a boy or girl, no need to go to the doctor. Just order the pink or blue test online or over the phone, when it arrives in the mail, the expectant mother pricks her finger and send off the blood sample to a lab in California.

"The way the pink or blue test works is by detecting small amounts of male DNA in the woman's blood. The only way she would have male DNA in her blood is if she were pregnant with a baby boy," Anna Vitebsy, Consumer Genetics said.

The test warns that no boys or men should even be nearby when the mom-to-be takes the test, because his dna could contaminate the sample.

Although the test is being marketed as a convenience, it raises ethical questions. Like what happens when an expectant couple learns early in the pregnancy the gender of their child, and is disappointed.

The test could lead to abortions, particularly in countries like India or China where boys are strongly preferred.

Terry Carmichael, Consumer Genetics said the product would not affect those countries.

"We do not sell our products to China. For example, we do not sell our product to India," Carmichael said.

Likewise, Anna Vitebsky, Consumer Genetics, said the test is not for gender selection.

"Our consent form and policies clearly state that you should not be using this for gender selection or even for medical reasons," she said.

The test is classified as non-medical and is therefore, not regulated by any medical guidelines. But medical ethicists are closely watching to see if legal action should be taken.

"If we see technology like this taking off, and start to see it having an impact on sex ratios, that might be the point where it makes sense to put stricter regulations or even a ban in place," said Dr. David Magnus, biomedical ethicist, Stanford University.

The test has been available since 2006 and has been taken by about six thousand expectant mothers worldwide.

*Originally aired February 19, 2009

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