Boy or girl? A simple test raises ethical concerns
CHICAGO — Boy or girl? A simple blood test in mothers-to-be can answer that question with surprising accuracy at about seven weeks, a research analysis has found. Though not widely offered by U.S. doctors, gender-detecting blood tests have been sold online to consumers for the past few years. Their promises of early and accurate results prompted genetics researchers to take a closer look.
They analyzed 57 published studies of gender testing done in rigorous research or academic settings — though not necessarily the same methods or conditions used by direct-to-consumer firms.
The authors say the results suggest blood tests like those studied could be a breakthrough for women at risk of having babies with certain diseases, who could avoid invasive procedures if they learned their fetus was a gender not affected by those illnesses. But the study raises concerns about couples using such tests for gender selection and abortion. Couples who buy tests from marketers should be questioned about how they plan to use the results, the study authors said.
The new analysis, published in Wednesday’s Journal of the American Medical Association, involved more than 6,000 pregnancies. The testing used a lab procedure called PCR that detects genetic material — in this case, the male Y chromosome. If present in the mother’s blood, she’s carrying a boy, but if absent, it’s a girl.
Senior author Dr. Diana Bianchi, a reproductive geneticist and executive director of the Mother Infant Research Institute at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, called the results impressive. She noted that doctors in Great Britain are already using such testing for couples at risk of having children with hemophilia or other sex-linked diseases, partly to help guide treatment decisions.
Dr. Lee Shulman, chief of clinical genetics at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, said the testing “isn’t ready for prime time.” I would have a lot of difficulties offering such a test just for gender identification. Gender is not an abnormality,” Shulman said. “My concern is this is ultimately going to be available in malls or shopping centers,” similar to companies offering “cute” prenatal ultrasound images.
Recent research found that increasing numbers of women in India who already have daughters are having abortions when prenatal tests show another girl, suggesting that an Indian ban on such gender testing has been ineffective. The expense of marrying off girls has contributed to a cultural preference there for boys.
Evidence also suggests that China’s limits on one child per couple and traditional preference for male heirs has contributed to abortions and an increasingly large gender imbalance.
Consumer Genetics Inc. a Santa Clara, Calif.-based company sells an “early gender” blood test called “Pink or Blue” online for $25 plus $265 or more for laboratory testing. It boasts of 95 percent accuracy, using a lab technique its scientists developed from the type of testing evaluated in the new analysis, said Terry Carmichael, the company’s executive vice president.
Carmichael said the company sells more than 1,000 kits a year. He said the company won’t test blood samples unless women sign a consent form agreeing not to use the results for gender selection. The company also won’t sell kits to customers in China or India because of fears of gender selection, he said.
So Consumer Genetics makes the woman sign a consent form agreeing not to use the test for gender selection…how do they know she will comply with that consent agreement? And they won’t sell kits to China or India. Couldn’t someone in that country have another person in another country order it for them (and use it as the person who ordered it)? Or couldn’t they be on an extended visit to the US and order it while they are here?
Consumer Genetics website says this kit “is a service providing information that has no impact on the health of the mother or the baby“. Really? What if someone finds out they are having a girl, wanted a boy, and chooses to get an abortion?
Well, after reading through this again, I’ve decided I don’t like it.