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02 Aug 2016

Using IVF technology to enable parents to choose their gender of their child for non-medical reasons was an unwarranted use of scarce health funds that could start a slippery slope toward designer babies, AMA President Dr Michael Gannon has warned.

Dr Gannon, a Perth-based obstetrician, said if parents were able to use IVF technology to choose the gender of a third child, it would not be long before it was being used to select for other characteristics.

“I think you would very soon have the situation where people do it for a first child,” the AMA President told radio 2GB. “Where do you stop? Do we start selecting eye colour? Hair colour? Just because you can do something with medical science doesn’t mean that you should do it.”

The AMA President made his comments following a push by fertility clinics for rule changes to allow the gender selection of babies to parents who already have children.

Current National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) guidelines ban sex selection except as a means to avoid transmission of serious genetic diseases such as haemophilia or to address the risk of miscarriage.

Dr Ian Olver, Chair of the NHMRC’s Australian Health and Ethics Committee which is overseeing a review of IVF rules, told News Corporation that, “I don’t think there would be any appetite for anything that emphasised one gender over another and allowed people for cultural or racial reasons to pick one gender”.

But Dr Olver left open the possibility of adopting rules similar to those in Israel that allow couples who already have at least four children of the same gender to petition for permission to choose the sex of the next baby.

The Committee Chair said one of the considerations was that some prospective parents were seeking IVF treatment in the US and Asia to get around sex selection ban in Australia.

“Some of them may be putting themselves in a less-than-ideal medical situation to achieve their goal, so that has to be taken into consideration,” he said.

In June, Dr Olver’s committee received recommended draft rules from a working group set up three years ago to examine possible changes, and is now considering them.

But it is unclear how long the process may yet take. The NHMRC said it was “currently unable to provide a definitive timeframe for the completion of the review”.

The Fertility Society of Australia and IVF Australia are among those pushing for a rule change to help families achieve some form of gender balance.

But Dr Gannon said it was “weasel words” to talk of family balance, and the “uncomfortable reality” of IVF was that it involved the creation and destruction of multiple embryos.

He said allowing for the gender selection of babies could have a number of serious consequences, including the potential to force otherwise healthy couples into IVF and “what it says about children who aren’t exactly like we would like them to be, and what it says about our attitudes to different genders”.

The cost of providing this option also needed to be taken into account, particularly in light of competing demands for scarce health funding.

Dr Gannon said part of the cost of even private IVF procedures was borne by taxpayers, and “last time I checked, we were fighting for the most basic of health services – we have got a freeze on GP rebates, and we could do so much better on Aboriginal health, mental health”.

“I just don’t think we’ve got enough fat in the health system to pay for so-called family balancing in people who could otherwise conceive naturally.”

Adrian Rollins

Published: 02 Aug 2016