Playing the odds
Parents, and doctors, have for years been making scientific attempts at choosing the gender of a baby. The various procedures boast success rates dependent entirely on the doctor who is performing them. Dr Hennie Lindeque, a Johannesburg-based fertility specialist, explains that these methods are all based on the fact that male sperm tend to swim faster than female sperm.
Ovulation monitoring is based on the fact that a couple is more likely to conceive a girl if they have sex just before ovulation occurs and that conceiving just after ovulation should result in a boy. ‘The success rate is about 60%,’ explains the doctor.
Sometimes, the doctor says, ovulation needs to be regulated through medication so that timing is perfected rather than guessed at, ‘If we do this, the success rate of conceiving the gender of choice climbs to 65%.’
Boasting a whopping 80% success rate is artificial insemination (AI), because in this process the female and male sperm are separated with only the sperm of choice being inseminated directly into the uterus.
When the odds aren’t good enough
A couple of years ago that was it – the three options above were a couple’s only hope of ever directing the gender of their baby. More recently however a new procedure called Pre-Implantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD) has become available to parents. With an almost 100% success rate in determining gender, it is a fail-proof method.
Originally developed as a way in which to test the genetic make-up of an embryo for inherited diseases and abnormalities (for example Tay Sachs Disease), PGD originally was designed to give couples at high risk of having a baby with a genetic abnormality the only chance at ever starting a family.
What PGD also did though, was confirm the gender of an embryo that was only days old. So, in theory, if a couple wanted a certain gender, then they could actively choose only those embryos for conception and leave the rest. This process of only being able to use a handful of viable embryos during the IVF process is par for the course as you cannot transfer more than four embryos back into the womb at any given time anyway.
The slippery slope
PGD for gender selection has created quite a stir with many opponents suggesting that if the process if available for non-medical reasons, it will be just the start of a culture of designer babies who are chosen for their unique and favourable genetic profiles over other babies who perhaps don’t fit the bill.
In fact, PGD for gender selection is illegal in Eastern countries such as India and China who have their own social issues with gender-selective abortions, as well as in most of Europe and the UK.
‘South Africa may soon join these ranks,’ explains Cecile Bezuidenhout, the reproductive scientist on Dr Lindeque’s team. ‘There is a White Paper currently up for debate in government which could make PGD for gender selection illegal in our country too.’
The PGD process
Firstly, PGD has to be done in conjunction with IVF, and will only be considered if a couple has at the very least one child, and in most cases two children of the same gender. The typical IVF process is followed whereby eggs are fertilised by sperm in a lab. This could be done after the process of separating out the male from the female sperm to enable more of a chance of the gender of choice.
A single cell is removed from the embryo for testing. This cell is broken open and put under a microscope for a geneticist to study, and using a test called FISH (florescent insito hybridisation) the gender will be confirmed.
The viable embryos with the desired gender are then implanted into the uterus on the 5th day of conception, while the others are either disposed of or frozen.
If a couple wants to pursue PGD they are looking at spending between R5 000 - R25 000 over and above the tens of thousands of rands that IVF alone costs. Most are happy to let nature run its course. For the rare couple - only about 2% of all couples that Dr Lindeque sees - it is a small price to pay for the baby girl or baby boy that they long for.
Do you think gender selection techniques should be freely available?