"The overall concern that we have one foot over the edge of the slippery slope is overstated because of the limited role that individual genes play in complex human traits," said Kathy Hudson, director of the Genetics and Public Policy Center at Johns Hopkins University. "There are real biological limits to how much control you can have over the characteristics of your offspring."
Nevertheless, research that her center will release next month found 60 percent of Americans are uncomfortable with sex selection for nonmedical reasons. "The use of a technology to fulfill parental desires is viewed as vain, capricious and frivolous," Hudson said.
After bearing three girls, Kristen Magill tried for a boy -- and is having two.
(Laurie Swope For The Washington Post)
The sperm-sorting approach being tested by the Genetics & IVF Institute of Fairfax sidesteps some of these concerns because it does not require scientists to create embryos in the lab and the process can select no traits other than sex.
Originally developed for livestock breeding, the MicroSort technique can sort male-producing sperm from female-producing sperm because the latter carries slightly more DNA. A woman can then be artificially inseminated with the sperm for the sex she wants.
The clinic is offering the procedure -- for about $2,800 to $4,000 per attempt -- at its Northern Virginia headquarters and a new center in Laguna Hills, Calif., for a study aimed at winning Food and Drug Administration approval. Several thousand couples have used it and more than 400 babies have been born, producing boys with about 75 percent accuracy and girls with 90 percent, said David Karabinus, scientific director of the MicroSort unit.
"For someone that really has a desire for that little girl or that little boy . . . this is a very, very important and useful technology," he said.
But critics say both techniques allow parents to discriminate on the basis of sex, and they point to countries such as India and China, where a preference for boys has led to abortion of female fetuses and abandonment of baby girls, creating a shortage of women.
"It is clear that sex selection targets women," said Alfonso Gomez-Lobo, a philosophy professor at Georgetown University. "From an ethical point of view, all of this is quite unacceptable."
Because MicroSort is not 100 percent reliable, critics fear it may lead to the selective abortion of fetuses, particularly females.
"If you ask couples coming in what they will do if they get the wrong sex, these couples say very frankly they will terminate the pregnancy," said Mark V. Sauer, director of the division of reproductive endocrinology at Columbia University. "I don't want to be a party to that."