Jayne and Jon Cornwill with baby Emmerson. Photo by Facebook.
Ever heard of “gender disappointment”? Jayne and Jon Cornwill certainly have. It’s what drove the Australian couple to mortgage their house, fly to California, and cough up nearly $50,000 to take advantage of technology called pre-implantation genetic screening (PGS) for a single purpose: to choose the sex of their baby at the outset of pregnancy, a practice that’s illegal in their home country.
“My husband wanted a little girl that he could one day walk down the aisle. I wanted that relationship — the bond between a mother and daughter,” Jayne explained recently on Australia’s “Today” show. After giving birth to three sons, she says she suffered from “gender disappointment,” noting, “It’s like mourning the death of a child you never had” and “like any other form of depression.” In a first-person piece published in the Sydney Morning Herald, she elaborated on why she traveled to Newport Beach to see Dr. Daniel Potter, who has serviced more than 1,000 other Australian clients. She wrote, “My desire for a daughter caused me to spiral into depression and left me virtually housebound. Every time I went out, toddlers in pink seemed to taunt me.”
The story of the Cornwill’s successful quest for a baby girl has been widely covered in the Australian and British presses this week, reigniting discussion over the controversial practice of sex selection using PGS technology. The process — which can only be conducted as a part of in-vitro fertilization (IVF) treatment — screens embryos to make sure they have the right number of chromosomes and that they are free of abnormalities that could signal disorders such as Downs Syndrome and Trisomy 18.
Baby Emmerson. Photo by Facebook.
But PGS also reveals the sex of an embryo with a nearly 100-percent accuracy rate, leading to an explosion of perfectly fertile couples opting for unnecessary IVF treatments.
“Our numbers have doubled over the past ten years — and these are happy, healthy, fertile clients,” notes Dr. Jeffrey Steinberg, founder of the Fertility Institutes, with locations in New York and Los Angeles, which pioneered the PGS-for-sex-selection practice in the U.S. He now sees about 600 non-fertility-challenged couples a year who want to choose the sex of their baby — 70 percent of which are from foreign countries where the practice is banned. Of his clients who do have a medical need for IVF, Steinberg tells Yahoo Parenting, 28 percent choose sex selection.
One IVF cycle, he says, costs $12,000; add in the sex-selection technology and it’s about $18,000 — although Steinberg stresses that his clients very rarely want the technology used solely for male-female identification. Instead, they “want it all,” meaning a thorough check that all chromosomes are normal, to make sure that none of the 400 testable disorders are present in the embryos before they are implanted into the potential mom’s womb. Those that aren’t the “right” sex, he says, can either be frozen for the couple’s own possible future use, donated to another couple, or donated to science for stem-cell research — an option chosen by “90 percent” of his clients.
When clients first meet with Steinberg for his required two-hour intake session, “they think they owe me an excuse, but they don’t,” he says. Still, reasons given by some foreign clients include needing a boy in order to receive an inheritance (in India) and wanting to avoid aborting more girls (in China). Reasons offered up by Americans are pretty much always the same. “Ninety-nine percent are doing it for ‘family balancing,’” he says.
He adds that he’s deflected a wide range of criticism over the years — for using important technology for shallow reasons, for “playing God,” and for generally going down an ethically slippery slope.
The Cornwill’s four children. Photo by Facebook.
That’s what most concerns various medical bodies, such as the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), which opposes the use of “family balancing” sex selection on ethical grounds. It’s also a worry for Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society, which examines the ethical, political, and social implications of assisted reproductive technologies. “Taken to the extreme, this would lead to an enhancement rat race, which has many larger social implications,” she tells Yahoo Parenting. “Having the desire for a girl or a boy — who can fault that? But even though our society tends to put an emphasis on individual desires, we need to think about their broader implications, as well as how they might affect our relationship with the child.”
Because, as Darnovsky notes, “If you go to a lot of trouble and expense to have a child of a certain sex, it’s probably because you have a set of expectations tied to that sex.” What if a boy wants to write poetry? What if a girl wants to play basketball? Not wear dresses? Announce that she’s transgender? “It seems to just reinforce the very rigid gender distinctions we make in this society,” she says.
The Center has myriad other concerns with the practice —women undergoing unnecessary IVF treatments, for one, which are not risk-free to either the woman or to the potential child, Darnovsky says. Because fertility technology is a “lucrative business,” she notes, it’s set competition into motion, leading to a lack of transparency about health risks, and to the growth of a largely unregulated industry. She also points out that people considering sex selection should be aware that they are doing something “that’s leading to a credible crisis in other parts of the world…by making it normalized” and contributing to dire problems from gender inequality to sex trafficking.
Still, Darnovsky acknowledges, people who want to be able to choose a baby’s sex “have a strong desire, and we should be careful about telling people what to do about family formation,” particularly since those who oppose abortion, she says, “have used the issue of sex selection to undermine abortion rights” because of the possibility of tossing embryos. “But it’s a question of how much do we want to normalize these kinds of things?”
There’s already an easier way to go about sex selection — during pregnancy, through a non-invasive prenatal screening, a blood test taken at around the eighth week of pregnancy to look for chromosomal abnormalities. “It is being used for gender selection,” Steinberg says. “Are women aborting based on the results? That we don’t know yet.”
Finally, ethicists fear that selecting for certain traits could lead to the actual modification of genes — something that’s not far down the pike here, Steinberg believes, considering the U.K.’s recent move toward allowing mitochondrial replacement. The technique, commonly referred to one that creates “three-parent babies,” replaces the nucleus of an egg affected by debilitating mitochondrial disease with a healthy one from a donor egg. “The nightmare scenario,” Darnovsky says, “is that we would really start engineering children.”
But Steinberg sees such advances as a “godsend,” pleading for society to “not put handcuffs on the scientist.” The same goes for details less crucial than avoiding disease, as Steinberg is about to reintroduce a service that caused quite a stir when he first announced it back in 2009: the ability to select your baby’s eye color. “We put it on hold because there was such an outcry. Even the Vatican called [to protest],” he says. “But there is so much demand for it. We’ve got a waiting list of 70 to 80 people.”