New research found that blood tests are able to accurately determine the sex of a fetus earlier than ever before. The tests are already used overseas and Americans have been wringing their hands about the implications — specifically, sex-selective abortion — for years. The finding suggests that we'll be hearing even more about the issue, as it won't be long before sex tests as early as the first trimester become routine.
According to a study published yesterday in the Journal of the American Medical Association, tests that analyze fetal DNA in the mother's blood are about 95% to 99% accurate. The L.A. Times explains the science involved:
A mother's blood carries free-floating fragments of her child's DNA during the time that she carries the fetus. Researchers can check for the child's sex by looking for the "Y" chromosome, which only appears in males. If their sample turns up a "Y" chromosome, it's a boy. If it doesn't turn up a "Y" chromosome, it's a girl — although there's the slight possibility that the test simply didn't detect any "Y" chromosome in that particular maternal blood sample.
There's enough fetal DNA in the mother's blood for the tests to be accurate at seven weeks, well before an ultrasound. Plus, unlike procedures like amniocentesis, they're non-invasive and carry no risk of miscarriage.
Fetal sex tests are nothing new, and range from cheap kits sold in drug stores to tests that must be sent to a lab and cost hundreds of dollars. The study found that tests that detect hormones in the mother's urine, or blood tests that promise results before seven weeks aren't reliable. Several companies have gone bankrupt or been sued after giving mothers inaccurate results.
As the New York Times notes, the tests are already widely used in Europe on parents whose children are at risk for gender-linked disorders. For example, if parents are carriers for a disorder associated with genes on the Y chromosome, knowing that their baby is a girl can spare parents from undergoing costly and dangerous tests.
While the tests have legitimate medical uses, most doctors in the U.S. don't use them because they still aren't regulated by the federal government. While this research may bring us one step closer to the government certifying labs to conduct the testing, the procedure has already become ensnarled in the abortion debate. There are reports that in China, India, and South Korea, some parents use prenatal tests and abort if they learn they're having a girl. The Times reports that some companies refuse to sell the tests in China and India, and one, Consumer Genetics, requires customers to sign a waiver saying they won't use the test for sex selection.
As we've discussed earlier, most women having planned pregnancies aren't itching to get an abortion. In cultures where sex-selection is actually practiced enough to throw off the normal ratio of male to female births, the bigger issue is usually widespread sexism. The answer isn't to limit women's choices even further, but to tackle the problems that make parents so desperate to not have girls. In the next few years, conservatives will undoubtedly start squawking more about banning the tests in the U.S. to prevent sex-selective abortions. However, it's unreasonable to deny parents information that could lead to a healthier pregnancy over fears that some people aren't ending pregnancies for the "right" reasons.
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