Australian couples hoping to choose the gender of their baby were just dealt a big blow

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The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) today announced that “sex-selection for non-medical purposes is not currently supported” in Australia.

In the first update to its ethical (ART) guidelines since 2007, the NMRC decided that fertility and IVF clinics must agree to not provide the service in order to be accredited.

Currently, Australia couples with non-medical reasons to ensure the gender of their next child – for example, a family with three girls wishing for a boy – have to travel overseas for the service.

The ART guidelines are based on the theory that choosing a child’s gender can harm the child’s potential future and society in general.

Dr Tereza Hendl, a bioethicist at the Centre for Values, Ethics and the Law in Medicine at the University of Sydney, says “allowing sex selection for social reasons would send out a message that it is acceptable to create children to fit preconceived binary gender roles”.

“The practice is ethically troubling because it does not take a child’s individuality into account and can limit children’s opportunities to develop freely in gender nonconforming ways.”

The decision was released after more than a year of consultation, in a 140-page report.

In its reasoning for supporting the ban, the Australian Health Ethics Committee (AHEC) said sex selection for non-medical reasons could still be accessed in two states and there was not enough evidence that the Australian population supported the practice.

Not surprisingly, IVF centres and fertility clinics have been advocating for the change for years.

Associate professor Mark Bowman is a fertility specialist and medical director of Genea, one of Australia’s largest providers of fertility services.

He said Genea “respectfully disagrees” with the decision and says informed reproductive choice is all about personal freedom.

“Sex selection, particularly for the purposes of family balancing, can be consistent with the responsible exercise of reproductive choice and the formation of a family,” he said.

Compounding the issue is the fact that there are still acceptable methods of sex selection available to Australian couples, such as non-invasive prenatal testing (NIPT).

After 10 weeks of pregnancy, foetal DNA can be extracted from a mother’s blood and can be used to determine whether the child is a boy or girl. Couples have been known to terminate such late-term pregnancies if they weren’t happy with the result.

IVF and pre-implantation genetic screening can determine a baby’s gender when it is only five days old.

Professor of Reproductive Medicine at Flinders University, Kelton Tremellen, says on that harm minimisation basis alone, she was in favour of gender selection for couples with “two or more children of the same sex”, provided they funded it themselves.

The only hope couple with non-medical reasons for a preferred gender have now is in the form of a loophole which could allow it to be legislated on an individual state or territory basis.

Despite the breadth of the report, there was only a short statement addressing emerging technologies, including the use of CRISPR/Cas9 genetic editing technology and mitochondrial transfer/donation to create 3 person babies, which can prevent the transmission of genetic mitochondrial diseases.

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