Will new gender-predicting blood test increase abortion rates?

Published: Thursday, Aug. 11 2011 10:00 a.m. MDT

Americans already seem to prefer boy babies over girls. Could a new blood test that reveals a baby's gender at seven weeks — months before an ultrasound can — lead some parents to abort pregnancies in an effort to select their next child's gender?

Scientists and ethicists are asking that and other questions today after news broke Tuesday that couples interested in learning the gender of their unborn baby won't have to wait until the routine ultrasound at 20 weeks if a new blood test popular in Europe makes its debut on American soil, according to Boston.com.

With the new blood test, parents with histories of genetic disorders, often tied to one gender over another, will be able to avoid undergoing invasive diagnostic procedures like amniocentesis. England has already seen a decline in women going in for such tests.

"It should only be used by families that are at risk for sex-linked diseases," Dr. Mary Rosser, an obstetrician and gynecologist at the Montefiore Medical Center in New York told Reuters, because the blood test can be misused. "What you have to consider is the ethics of this," Rosser said. "If parents are using it to determine gender and then terminate the pregnancy based on that, that could be a problem."

As countries like China experience extreme gender gaps due to the excessive use of sex-selective abortions, which are often performed to end pregnancies that would result in a female child, the ability to predict gender as early as seven weeks into a pregnancy raises concerns for scientist here in the United States. Researchers worry the desire for a male child, even here in America, and the ability to learn gender so early will make sex-selective abortions more popular here in the U.S.

"If couples get the results earlier, that makes abortion less burdensome," said Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, in the recent Boston.com article. "A woman can take the test, and then take pills to terminate the pregnancy in the privacy of her home when it's that early on. I would say gender selection is a bad reason to have an abortion, which is tough for a pro-choicer like me to admit."

A study review published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that a simple blood test can check for the Y chromosome, which is present only in male cells, in the mother's blood as early as seven weeks into the pregnancy. And it can predict gender with a 95 percent accuracy rate.

India, like China, has seen an increase in the abortions of female fetuses, and according to Patheos.com, "in India, the best predictor of violence and crime for any given area is not income but sex ratio." Patheos' Timothy Dalrymple wrote that if there are only 100 women for every 120 men, there will be 20 men who will be unable to marry. Those 20 men will mostly come from poor families, and "unmarried men with limited incomes tend to make trouble," Patheos.com said. "In Chinese provinces where the sex ratio has spiked, a crime wave has followed."

According to a book review in the Wall Street Journal, Mara Hvistendahl's book, "Unnatural Selection," released this summer, addresses the issue of sex-selective abortions and the ethical faultiness of choice, as it opens a door to gendercide.

"Despite the author's intentions, 'Unnatural Selection' might be one of the most consequential books ever written in the campaign against abortion," Last wrote in June. "It is aimed, like a heat-seeking missile, against the entire intellectual framework of 'choice.' For if 'choice' is the moral imperative guiding abortion, then there is no way to take a stand against 'gendercide.' Aborting a baby because she is a girl is no different from aborting a baby because she has Down syndrome or because the mother's 'mental health' requires it. Choice is choice. One Indian abortionist tells Ms. Hvistendahl: "I have patients who come and say 'I want to abort because if this baby is born it will be a Gemini, but I want a Libra.' "

Last went on to say there are two choices, "restrict abortion or accept the slaughter of millions of baby girls and the calamities that are likely to come with it."

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