Will A New Prenatal Gender Test Lead To Sex-Selective Abortion?

A cheap, at-home prenatal test that claims to determine fetal gender with 90% accuracy is stoking fears of sex-selective abortion.

The "Boy or Girl Gender Prediction Test," which retails at CVS and Walgreens for $34.95, turns a woman's urine green if she's carrying a boy and yellow or orange if it's a girl. Its manufacturer, IntelliGender, said the test is 90% accurate in the lab and 78 to 80% accurate in a real-world setting. Women can take it as early as 10 weeks into their pregnancy, while ultrasounds to determine gender typically take place at 20 weeks. It's the timing issue that has critics concerned about the test's implications. Health care ethicist Jennifer Parks says,

"Say a woman has three daughters and wants to get pregnant one last time to have a baby boy. If she takes the test at 10 weeks, and it's not the sex she wants, she may want to terminate and try again. [...] At 10 weeks, most Americans see it as the earliest embryo, very different than a more developed fetus."

IntelliGender says its product isn't intended to influence decisions about termination. Their FAQ states:

the test is designed as a fun, positive pre-birth experience for the parents-to-be. IntelliGender does not recommend test users to make any financial, emotional or family planning decisions based on the test results. This includes painting a nursery! Seeing an obstetrician as early in the pregnancy is critical for the health of the mother and the baby. Pregnant women should follow the advice of their physician for decisions related to their pregnancy.

Despite the fact that it pitches its test as a "fun pre-birth experience" that "bridges the curiosity gap between conception and sonogram" — that is, a fun silly game that nobody is supposed to really care about — IntelliGender lists several testimonials by women who were obviously hoping for a particular result. Celeste Steed writes:

I tested with your product in early March 2009. The test came back with results that we were having a girl. I just had a 3d ultrasound and its confirmed that we are having a girl!! We are so excited after 3 boys we got our princess on her way! Your product is great and truly works! Thank you Intelligender!

And Jen says:

We have four precious and energetic little boys. I would LOVE a little girl to add to the bunch! Looks like we will be!

However, there is (unsurprisingly) no mention of abortion in the testimonials, and the one mom who seems like she might not have gotten the result she hoped for seems psyched anyway:

I wanted to let you guys know, I'm 16wks and I took your test last wed. morning 3/4/09, the test clearly said I'm having a boy. I already have three boys so I was wondering if this time around it might be a girl. So I decided to go get an ultrasound done on sat. 3/7/09, sure enough I am having a boy! Thank you and I am so excited about my little guy!!

The testimonials seem to walk a calculated line — enthusiastic enough to make the product look like an obvious choice for pregnant women (of course they care about gender!), but relaxed enough to make it seem uncontroversial (but not enough to actually get an abortion!). However, fears about sex-selective abortion in America date back at least to 2005, when the Baby Gender Mentor test debuted. This test cost $275 and required pregnant women to send a drop of blood to a lab, but it could be performed as early as five weeks along, and it had ethicists worried. Arthur Caplan of UPenn said, "You can tiptoe around it, but the fact is that if you're sending information about sex, then you're in the sex-selection testing business. [...] 'I would condemn it." To offset these concerns, the Baby Gender Mentor's marketers also used a fun-and-games approach, recommending the test for "the type of woman who can't wait to open Christmas presents."

But a baby isn't a Christmas present, and for some couples, learning a baby's gender is about more than "painting the nursery" (while we're at it, why does this fake conundrum show up in every discussion of a baby's sex? Does every nursery really need a gender-specific paint job?) In a column last year, William Saletan discussed sex-selective abortion in the United States. Birth statistics suggest that the practice occurs in China and India, especially in prosperous areas where access to abortion is better, but Saletan suggests it may be happening in Chinese-American, Korean-American, and Indian-American families as well. For these groups, if the first child is a girl, the second is more likely to be a boy than would be dictated by chance. If the first two kids are girls, the probability of a boy goes up to 1.5 to 1 (the normal probability is 1.05 to 1). This suggest, according to Saletan, that some minority groups are already practicing sex-selective abortion, via ultrasound or via blood tests like the Baby Gender Mentor.

Some speculate that sex-selective abortion among minority groups is a kind of cultural holdover, and will fade as families become more Americanized. But there's no reason to believe that a preference for baby boys — or baby girls — couldn't develop in the United States. China and India might have the most obvious sex-selection today, but they certainly don't have a monopoly on sexism. It is possible to imagine an America where an easy, early gender test might tip the balance between baby boys and baby girls.

There are, however, reasons to hope this effect would be small. Contrary to what the right would have us believe, few women actually want an abortion. Even fewer women with planned pregnancies want one. Sex-selective abortion in India and China, Saletan points out, often results from economic concerns such as the perceived cost of having a daughter. If we can offset these concerns, both by providing a social safety net for mothers, families, and the elderly and by ensuring equal opportunities for girls and women, we can help eliminate the inequalities that might lead mothers to abort girls. Prohibiting early fetal gender tests seems overly oppressive. But by improving gender equality across the board, we can help prevent them from having unwanted effects.

Pregnant With Girl Or Boy? At-Home Test May Tell You [CNN]
Home Test for Fetus Gender Raises Abortion Concerns [LiveScience]
IntelliGender [Official Site]
Test Reveals Gender Early Iin Pregnancy [Boston Globe]
Fetal Subtraction [Slate]
Choosing To Eliminate Unwanted Daughters [Boston Globe]