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A new non invasive technique wherein blood is drawn from the expectant mother allows the parents to know the sex of their baby as early as 7 weeks rather than waiting till the end of first trimester for an ultrasound report.
The test is used to look for the presence of small pieces of the Y chromosome in the mother’s blood. If present, it implies that the mother is carrying a male baby. This technique is already available in certain hospitals in Europe where it is called “cell free fetal DNA” technique.

The other non invasive technique available to women in the U.S. is ultrasound. However, it yields result only by the end of first trimester (12 weeks) and is not very accurate. The invasive techniques available for sex determination include amniocentesis and chorionic villus sampling. In amniocentesis, small amount of amniotic fluid, which surrounds the growing fetus, is extracted and tested for sex determination of the baby. In chorionic villus sampling, a small portion of the placenta is extracted for the same purpose. Although fairly accurate, these techniques are often associated with dangerous side effects. One in hundred women undergoing amniocentesis and one in six hundred women undergoing chorionic villus sampling miscarry as a result of the procedure. The latest technique is safe and pretty accurate as compared to these methods.

Sex Determination as Early as in the 7th week can Give Rise to Ethical Issues

Dr. Diana Bianchi of Tufts University School of Medicine, who worked on the new technique, analyzed the results of 57 prior studies which included more than 6,500 pregnancies. She and her colleagues concluded that the result is 98.8% accurate in detecting male babies while it is 94.8% times correct in identifying a female baby. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, the test is reliable only when performed seven weeks after pregnancy. A similar urine based test has been found to be completely unreliable.

Early determination of the sex of the baby is important in certain genetically transmitted diseases.
Diseases like hemophilia commonly affect the boys. Knowing that the mother is carrying a female baby can spare her from the risk of undergoing invasive procedures, which can result in a miscarriage.

However, sex determination as early as in the 7th week can give rise to ethical issues. According to Dr. Mary Rosser, an obstetrician and gynecologist at the Montefiore Medical Center in New York, if the parents find out that the baby is not of the sex they desired, they may terminate the pregnancy. This could be an ethical problem as terminating a pregnancy based on the sex of the baby is completely unethical. Dr. Bianchi supports her point and agrees that the test should be used only by families that are at risk for sex linked genetic diseases. Sex selection solely for the purpose of family balancing or other social reasons should be discouraged.

  • “Mother's blood test reveals baby's sex”, by Frederik Joelving, Reuters, published on Aug 9, 2011, accessed on Aug 14, 2011.
  • “Noninvasive Fetal Sex Determination Using Cell-Free Fetal DNA”, by Stephanie A Devaney, Diana W Bianchi, et al, Journal of the American Medical Association, published on August 10, 2011, accessed on Aug 14, 2011.
  • “Baby gender blood tests 'accurate”, by Michelle Roberts, BBC News, published on August 10, 2011, accessed on Aug 14, 2011.
  • Photo courtesy of nhburdick on Flickr:

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