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Parents May Welcome Baby Gender Test, But Bioethicists Worry

BY PEGGY O'CROWLEY
c.2005 Newhouse News Service

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Congratulations, you're pregnant! And it's a girl!

These two revelations usually come months apart. But a new blood test enables expectant mothers to find out the gender of their baby-to-be as early as five weeks into the pregnancy.

The Baby Gender Mentor test kit, which can be bought online at pregnancystore.com, includes two pregnancy tests and a kit for collecting and sending a simple finger-prick blood sample to a Massachusetts laboratory. The kit costs $25, and the lab charges $250 for processing and e-mails the confidential results within 48 hours.

Because embryonic DNA is present in maternal blood, the sample is tested for the presence of the Y chromosome, which indicates a male. If there is no Y chromosome, the embryo is female. The test does not need federal Food and Drug Administration approval because it is not used as a diagnostic tool.

Some see this kind of early gender identification as a simple, harmless way to find out what color to paint the nursery almost four months before conventional tests, such as amniocentesis or ultrasound, reveal a baby's sex.

However, bioethicists question whether the new technology will be used as a tool for sex selection, prompting a woman to abort her fetus if she doesn't approve of its gender.

While surveys of Americans show no general gender preference, some cultures prize boys far above girls. That preference is fueling trends in India and China, for example, in which the number of boys born each year outstrips girls far beyond the natural ratio of about 105 boys to every 100 girls. Those governments have tried to crack down on ultrasound labs that specialize in sex determination.

At present, the Baby Gender Mentor test, which is processed by Acu-Gen Biolab in Lowell, Mass., is available only in the United States. A Canadian company, Paragon Genetics, offers a similar test for $390, but it cannot be conducted until 10 weeks into the pregnancy, and it takes 10 business days to process, according to the company's Web site (www.paragondna.com).

Arthur Caplan, chairman of the department of medical ethics at the University of Pennsylvania, said he doubted the new test would be used widely in the United States. But the ability to find out gender so quickly is troubling, he said.

"If you sell the test in India, China or the Philippines, that's a problem. `Five weeks out' shifts the moral equation for some people. Ending a pregnancy is easier to do than at 20 weeks," Caplan said. He also questioned the lack of counseling for those who want to find out the baby's gender.

Caplan said the test is just the beginning in using DNA testing to gain information about embryos.

"It's the cutting edge of what's coming," he said. "What if you find out if the baby will have a high risk of depression, or obesity, or will have red hair? What about a disposition to homosexuality? If it's not to detect a disease, you shouldn't be doing it."

But Kimberly Mutcherson, an assistant professor at Rutgers Law School in Camden, N.J., said people should be able to use the information any way they want.

"People make sex selection decisions for many reasons -- to balance their family, or to check for gender-related disease. If you believe women have the right to choose, those are perfectly legitimate reasons," said Mutcherson, who teaches a class called "Bioethics, Babies and Babymaking."

Sherry Bonelli, president of Mommy's Thinkin', which sells the Baby Gender Mentor test, dismissed the possibility of misuse in the United States.

"Within other countries with preferences for boys vs. girls, that might be a concern, but I firmly believe it's not an issue in the U.S.," she said.

The test, based on newly patented technology, is so reliable, Bonelli said, that the company offers a double-money-back guarantee.

The company's scientific director, C.N. Wang, told the Boston Globe the gender test is designed to showcase the power of an innovative DNA technique that can acquire definitive results from a drop of dried blood. Wang said the company is not ready to publish data on the technique and its accuracy, the Globe reported.

Since the test debuted on the "Today" show in mid-June, Bonelli said, more than 2,000 kits have been sold.

Carrie Dilgaro of Bridgewater, N.J., said she would have welcomed the knowledge of gender as early as possible in her pregnancy so she could have started decorating the nursery and buying baby clothes.

"I found out at 20 weeks, and I was biting at the bit already," she said. Dilgaro gave birth June 18 to a daughter, Mackenzie Hart Dilgaro.

Claudia Pascale, a psychologist who offers support services at the Institute for Reproductive Medicine and Science at Saint Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, N.J., cautioned that such knowledge, while desired, could prove traumatic if the pregnancy ended in miscarriage, which most often occurs during the first three months.

"In some ways this shows us how soon the whole fantasy life starts in terms of having children," she said. "If you're refining that at five weeks, picking the paint colors, you are kind of going well beyond where you actually are, and there are some dangers there."

July 11, 2005



(Peggy O'Crowley is a staff writer for The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J. She can be contacted at pocrowley@starledger.com.)