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A Boy for You, a Girl for Me: Technology Allows Choice

Embryo Screening Stirs Ethics Debate

By Rob Stein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 14, 2004; Page A01

Kristen and John Magill adore all three of their daughters -- 11-year-old twins and a 5-year-old baby sister. But when they began to plan for their next -- and last -- child, the Magills really wanted a boy.

"My husband is a 'Junior' and has a family business that he wants to continue in the family name," said Kristen, 37, of Grafton, Mass.

After bearing three girls, Kristen Magill tried for a boy -- and is having two. (Laurie Swope For The Washington Post)

Two Ways to Select a Baby's Sex
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So the Magills combined a family trip to Disneyland in August with a stop at a Los Angeles fertility clinic that enables couples to pick the sex of their babies. Kristen is now expecting twin boys.

"I'm excited," she said. "We always wanted a boy. We really wanted just one, but we'll be happy with two."

The Magills are part of a small but growing number of Americans who are selecting the sex of their children, using techniques developed to help couples who are infertile or at risk for having babies with genetic diseases.

In addition to the standard in vitro fertilization procedure that Kristen underwent, a Fairfax clinic is testing another approach that can sort sperm by sex -- an easier and far less expensive method, albeit not quite as reliable.

The doctors offering the services, as well as some medical ethicists who defend them, argue the procedures make it possible for parents to fulfill a natural desire, harm no one, and enhance the joys of parenthood and family life.

"These are grown-up people expressing their reproductive choices. We cherish that in the United States," said Jeffrey Steinberg, director of the Fertility Institutes, which offers the service at clinics in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. "These people are really happy when they get what they want. These are heartwarming stories."

But others say the practice, which is prohibited in many countries, uses expensive medical care for frivolous purposes, destroys some embryos just because they are the "wrong" sex, and promotes gender discrimination. Moreover, the critics say, the trend is a dangerous first step toward transforming childbirth from a natural process full of surprise and wonder into just another commodity in which a baby's features are picked like options on a new car.

"It runs the risk of turning procreation and parenting into an extension of the consumer society," said Michael J. Sandel, a political philosopher at Harvard University. "Sex selection is one step down the road to designer children, in which parents would choose not only the sex of their child but also conceivably the height, hair color, eye color, and ultimately, perhaps, IQ, athletic prowess and musical ability. It's troubling."

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© 2004 The Washington Post Company


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