A new blood test that enables expectant mothers to find out the gender of their baby as early as five weeks into the pregnancy is sending jitters around the world.
Experts feel the test, available for purchase on the Internet will fuel trends in Asia, especially India and China where 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 but have had little success.
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, according to the Religion News Service.
"I am sure once word gets out, many will start buying this kit," Dr Parvin Singh from Panjab, India told The Asian Pacific Post.
"We have a problem in the community about gender selection and this will just fuel the problem," he said.
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 North Americans show no general gender preference, some cultures prize boys far above girls.
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 early 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. 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'.
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 C$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 Website www.paragondna.com.
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"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 NBC's 'Today' show in mid-June, Bonelli said, more than 2,000 kits have been sold.
A recent United Nations Population Fund report said the practice of gender selection is widespread in India, where affluent parents are killing tens of thousands of fetal girls per year, hoping for a boy instead.
An anti-girl bias and the killing of girl babies has been common among India's poor and working class for decades, but new figures show that in the heart of New Delhi--where some of India's richest and the best-educated live--the ratio of girls to boys showed the sharpest fall.
The report by India's health ministry said that over the past decade, fewer than 900 girls were born in the capital, New Delhi, and in Bombay, for every 1,000 boys. New Delhi's rich southwest region had the lowest ratio--845 girls per 1,000 boys in the newborn-to-6-year-old group.
In Bombay, the ratio was 898 girls per 1,000 boys in that age group. In Ahmedabad, Gujarat--one of the most industrialized states--there were 814 girls per 1,000 boys ages up to 6.
According to a 2001 census, the overall birthrate for India was 927 girls per 1,000 boys, a steady decline from 945 girls per 1,000 boys in 1991 and 962 in 1981.
These statistics mean that, as a result of abortions or killing girls in infancy, up to 5 million baby girls "disappear" from India every year.
To counter the growing trend, the government is displaying large posters featuring images of little girls with messages like: "I am yours. Do not kill me."
But the fact is that, in most cases, the decision to abort a female fetus or to kill a baby girl is made by the husband or his parents said the Washington Post.
The 2001 census report, reveals that in rural India, 946 girls were born for every 1,000 boys, while in urban areas where people are richer and more educated, there were only 900 girls per 1,000 boys.
The report said the sex ratios were most equal among Christian and Muslim Indians, and most tilted in favor of boys among Hindus and Sikhs.
Rajesh Gill, a professor of sociology at Panjab University said: "On this count, Muslims and Christians in the country follow their religion more strictly, and they are basically against the killing of any fetus or girl babies. Female fetuscide is banned in Sikhism, yet this heinous form of sexual discrimination exists among the Sikhs."
India's patriarchal society emphasizes the need for male heirs; a son is considered an extra pair of hands to earn income for the family. Girls, who need a dowry to attract a husband, are viewed as economic and social burdens.
In many cases parents do not care about providing sufficient food, education and development for their daughters, since they will eventually marry and leave home with as large a dowry as the parents can afford. "Grooming a girl," an Indian maxim says, "is like watering a neighbor's garden."
While releasing the recent U.N. Population Fund report, one official in New Delhi said discrimination against women permeates every level of Indian society.
"It has spread across all religions, in rural and urban areas, among the rich and the poor," she said. "Soon many men will not find brides if girl fetuses continue to be destroyed in the womb."
The methods used in rural areas to kill unborn or newborn girls are varied and shocking.
Opium is used, as well as oversalted milk, both of which cause the baby to die a slow and painful death.
Midwives are known to hit newborn girls on the head or choke them.
More modern methods are no less disturbing. Despite being outlawed in 1994 in an effort to stop the practice, ultrasound to determine the sex of a baby is also used to destroy the child in the womb.
In cities and even rural areas across the country, tens of thousands of ultrasound sex-determination centers and abortion clinics have appeared.
Although sex-determination tests have been banned in India since 1994, the ultrasound centers flourish openly throughout the country, often by bribing corrupt police and health officials.
A doctor in the town of Aligarh, 70 miles southeast of New Delhi, said that many single-room ultrasound centers and private hospitals in the area earn more than three-quarters of their income from sex determination and abortions.
"The sex determination test is done secretly, and no report by the ultrasound center follows when the fetus is found to be female and bound for an abortion," said Dr. Shabbir Husain in Aligarh.
"Afterward, the unscrupulous doctors issue a certificate stating it was a natural miscarriage."
Under current Indian law, anyone seeking technological help to choose the sex of their child can be jailed for three years, and a doctor conducting sex-determination tests or helping the mother abort an unwanted baby can lose his or her license.
A gender rights activist in New Delhi, Dr. Sabu George, said that at the request of clients willing to pay more to have sons, some modern fertility clinics in India produce male babies using the technology of selective sperm separation. "The desire for boys transcends caste, social, educational and economic status," Dr. George said.
A similar situation exists in China where Beijing has made the selective abortion of female foetuses a criminal offence and will ban parents from obtaining ultrasound scans to discover their unborn baby's sex.
According to the most recent official figures, 119 boys are born in China for every 100 girls, largely because parents abort baby girls to try for a boy--an unwanted legacy of China's one-child policy.
There are 119 male births for every 100 female births in China. Zhang Weiqing, China's minister for national population and family planning, who announced the crackdown, said: "The government takes it as an urgent task to correct the gender imbalance of newborns."
The move follows an official investigation of 3,605 selective abortion cases over the past two years and coincides with a drive to counter discrimination against girls--which includes a national programme to exempt girls from school fees and give housing, employment and welfare privileges to one-daughter families.
Professor Li Yongping, a Beijing University demographer, asked to recommend ways to prevent women aborting baby girls, recently completed a study of Hainan Island, the province with China's biggest gender gap.
Prof Li concluded that the practice was so widespread it was impossible to stop.
"Ultrasound scanners are cheap to buy and there is one in almost every township clinic in the country," he said. "We have a market economy developing in China and there is strong demand for these scans. Women have the money to pay for them and there is also strong supply."
The governor of Hainan--where in some schools boys outnumber girls by three to one--introduced a provincial law in October making it possible to jail for five years anyone caught giving or receiving a scan for sex selection. Professor Li found that this policy has not resulted in a single arrest.
Although the use of ultrasound scans for sex selection is illegal in Hainan, it is permitted if doctors say there are "medical" reasons, or if the health of a foetus needs to be checked. Women pay between C$60 and C$120 for illicit scans and, to avoid breaking the law, a doctor gives a coded signal to let parents know the sex of the unborn child.
"A shake of the head means it's a girl. A nod means it's a boy," said Professor Li. "How can you control that You can't put cameras in the clinics. You can't prosecute a doctor for nodding his head."
On Hainan Island, China's southernmost province, the ratio of male to female births is 1.33 to one--the biggest gender imbalance in the nation, followed by Guangzhou and Guangxi provinces where the ratio is 1.3 to one. Boys are more desirable than girls in traditional Chinese culture, partly because a son provides for parents in old age, while a daughter becomes part of her husband's family after marriage.