The Daily Mail recently reported that some NHS doctors are cashing in by setting up appointments at private clinics abroad for patients wishing to have embryo selection for non-medical reasons, a practice that has been illegal in the UK since 2008. They are describing this as a scandal.
This is not the first time this has been in the news. In 2011 the same newspaper reported that British couples were being sent to Cyprus for non-medical embryo selection.
British couples can pay up to £14,000 to choose the sex of their child and the demand for this treatment is huge, as are the financial rewards. Not surprisingly, some doctors will therefore continue to offer it to patients despite the misgivings of the practice. Fertility tourism, where couples desperate for a baby travel abroad for treatment, is a growing industry. Previously, couples who travelled abroad for sex selection would have gone directly to the overseas clinic after carrying out their own research. The most common choice is the US, where it is legal in almost every state.
Brokering a deal between a patient and overseas clinic for financial gain is not in itself an illegal act. The General Medical Council (GMC) expect a doctor to act within the laws of the UK and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), who police infertility treatment in the UK, has no powers to prevent a doctor sending a patient overseas for a treatment that would otherwise be disallowed in the UK.
Selecting the gender of a baby has provoked intense debate, but for those patients who can afford the treatment where it is legal, how concerned should we be, and with fertility tourism common should sex selection for non-medical grounds be reviewed in the UK?
‘Since 1990, over 3 million healthy embryos have been destroyed, most of them following fertility cycles with couples desperate to have a baby.’
The HFEA will undoubtedly be debating this issue again in light of the current newspaper investigations. Some commentators say it has a duty to protect the embryo and are concerned how the human embryo may be regarded if non-medical sex selection was legalised. Would it lead to more healthy embryos being destroyed if they were not of the desired sex?
We know, however, that since 1991 over three million embryos have been destroyed, most of them following fertility cycles, so how concerned should we really be?
Some describe embryo sex selection as gendercide, with destruction taking place based on sex. Others claim that selecting the sex of the embryo for non-medical reasons is ‘playing God’ and could lead to the creation of ‘designer babies’ where parents map out every detail of their unborn child. Whether this fear ever becomes a reality is doubtful. Since non-medical sex selection has been legal in many countries for many years, is this simply scare mongering a science fiction scenario?
Whatever your point of view, who should be eligible for non-medical embryo sex selection? Should there a distinction between a patient who wants embryo sex selection just because they fancy it or because they want a parenting experience of a particular sex, the preference for a male because of cultural reasons, or maybe have 4 sons and desperately want a girl, or have 1 son and want a girl to aspire to the ‘perfect family’ traditionally described as having one of each sex?
As long as there continues to be such a disparity in the way embryo sex selection for non-medical reasons is perceived throughout the world then fertility tourism for this treatment will thrive. Is it right to keep the practice under tight legislative control in the UK? Probably yes. However, whether or not doctors should be allowed to broker the arrangement for patients seeking the treatment outside of the UK, let alone benefit from it financially, is a question that needs much more careful consideration.