How far would you go to have a child of a certain sex? Do you have two children of the same sex but have always desperately wanted a girl or a boy?
I grew up in a two child family. There was me and my brother and I guess in the back of my mind whenever I thought of the perfect family unit, it consisted of one girl and one boy. When I first found out I was pregnant I longed to have a little girl and utterly convinced myself that it was a boy until the scan. I was delighted. A couple of years later I was pregnant again. My husband has serious knee issues and openly admitted that he hoped it was another girl because he didn’t know if he would be able to play football or rugby with a boy. I secretly hoped it would be a boy as that was my image (then) of a perfect family but we had another girl. I have to admit, awful as it might sound, that for a split second I was disappointed when we were first told. Now I realise how crazy I was as I wouldn’t be without my little monkey for any boy in the world. Many people, however, mainly of the older generation told us not to worry as we could always try again for a boy. They felt sorry for us because we didn’t have a boy to carry on the family name. But we aren’t going to have any more children and our two girls are just perfect for us.
But what happens if what you are given is not good enough for you? What if your desire to have a boy or a girl is so strong for whatever reason, religious, cultural or just purely personal, that you carry on regardless? Some parents can end up having four girls or four boys and never get the desired gender simply because that’s not what nature intended. Some men are just predisposed to have predominantly male or female sperm.
While some will keep trying the natural way, others will go even further to control the gender through intervention both pre-and post implantation of an embryo as well as at birth, through sex selective adoption of their unwanted child. There are two types of pre-implantation methods (the Ericsson method and the IVF/PGD technique), both of which are based on actively causing the second sex chromosome to be either a Y chromosome (resulting in a male), or an X chromosome (resulting in a female):
- The Ericsson method uses higher concentrations of sperm of the desired sex to increase the likelihood of conceiving that sex. The method has a 70-72% success rate for boys and a 69-75% success rate for girls. The Ericsson method separates male and female sperm by passing them through a column filled with blood protein, human serum albumin. As the sperm enter the human serum albumin, the differences in mass between the X and Y chromosomes manifest as the lighter male sperm push deeper into the protein than the females dragged down by the weight of the extra “leg” of the X sex chromosome. This tiny difference creates separate layers of concentrated male and female sperm. The layers of gender-selected sperm are of higher concentrations but not pure. This lack of purity explains the 30% chance of gender selection failure of the Ericsson method.
- Using the IVF/PGD technique, after ovarian stimulation, multiple eggs are removed from the mother. The eggs are fertilized in the laboratory using the father’s sperm. As the embryos develop through mitosis, they are separated by sex. Embryos of the desired gender are implanted back in the mother’s uterus. Prior to fertilization with IVF, the fertilized eggs can be genetically biopsied with pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) to increase fertilization success. Once an embryo grows to a 6-8 cell size, a small laser incision in the egg membrane (zona pellucida) allows safe removal of one of the cells. Every cell in the embryo contains an identical copy of the genome of the entire person. Removal of one of these cells does not harm the developing embryo. A geneticist then studies the chromosomes in the extracted cells for genetic defects and for a definite analysis of the embryo’s gender.
The IVF/PGD technique is preferred over the Ericsson method because of the stricter control of the offspring gender in the laboratory. Since only embryos of the desired sex are transferred to the mother, IVF/PGD avoids the small likelihood present in the Ericsson method of an undesired sperm fertilizing the egg. Gender selection success rates for IVF/PGD are very high.
A friend of mine is currently considering the IVF/PGD technique and I asked her why having a child of a specific gender was so important to her. She said:
“I have been very lucky and conceived first time on both pregnancies. I have two adorable little boys and I would absolutely love more boys and more girls. Indeed I would love a house full of children. However, my husband does not want a small army of children and as we both work full time, it is not possible to have that many . He has agreed to one further child on the basis this is our last. In my mind, if it is to be my last child, I would like to have a girl as I am a woman and I would like to have another woman in the family. There are no girls on either side of our immediate family and my husband’s mother died many years ago. My mother is not interested in my world so the only possibility of a mother-daughter relationship existing is if I have my own daughter. If I took the risk naturally and failed, I know I would always want to try for more and would ultimately pressurise my husband even if I did not realise I was doing so. When balancing it up both ways, there would be far more mental pressure in taking the risk and trying naturally than choosing the sex. And I would far rather do this and then have a manageable family on terms of size.”
Whilst many will empathise with this point of view, there is a big difference between choosing to go down the IVF/PGD where you choose the sex and create a child from day one and terminating a pregnancy of an already existing child due to the wrong sex which people also do in what they see as an alternative. Abortion law does not prevent abortion just because the foetus is not the required gender. It merely looks at whether the consequences of continuing with the pregnancy would cause injury to mental or physical health. In Saturday’s Times, the chief executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service defended her support for the abortion of foetuses on the ground of gender. Ann Furedi claims that sex selection in Britain “simply isn’t happening” and yet is clearly is whether by IVF or abortion.
Undergoing IVF or having an abortion is mentally and physically a huge step. For those prepared to go that far, the desire for a boy or girl must be overwhelming. There is no doubt that the child will know it is wanted but what about the consequences for the rest of the family. So the question remains – how far would you go to have the perfect family?