Pregnancy gender test sparks debate

February 9, 2009 7:53:34 AM PST
A Silicon Valley company has launched a new product that bundles a pregnancy test with a kit that can tell the mother whether she's carrying a boy or a girl. It tests fetal DNA from the woman's dried blood sample and has sparked a new ethical debate.

Pink or blue, girl or boy -- find out early -- as early as seven weeks into the pregnancy.

"This is about the joy of knowing," said Terry Carmichael, Consumer Genetics.

And so a Sunnyvale-based company, Consumer Genetics, is capitalizing on that desire with the development of a direct-to-consumer genetic testing product that reveals a baby's gender early - it's called the 'Pink or Blue' test.

"The way the 'Pink or Blue' test works is by detecting small amounts of male DNA in the woman's blood. So the only way she would have male DNA in her blood is if she's pregnant with a baby boy," said Anna Vitebsky, Consumer Genetics.

To avoid any possible contamination of male DNA giving an in-accurate result, this super-sensitive test requires no men be present while the pregnant woman pricks her finger to draw a blood sample for the lab card. Consumer Genetics claims an accuracy of 95 percent, or greater.

Dr. David Magnus, a biomedical ethicist at Stanford University, says accuracy rate is not his only concern.

"One of the questions that this technology raises is why? What's the market? What's the value?" said Dr. Magnus.

He believes consumer tests like these could lend to gender disappointment, upsetting a woman who isn't carrying the gender she desired. But ethically even worse, it opens the door for gender selection -- leading to abortions, which is a cultural issue in some countries and can skew sex ratios.

"We know that in China or India that actually more men are born than women and that could have very serious social consequences," said Dr. Magnus.

"We do not sell our products to China for example. We do not sell our product to India," said Carmichael.

"Our consent forms and policies clearly state you should not be using this for gender selection, or even for medical reasons," said Vitebsky.

Consumer Genetics insists its product was never designed for gender selection purposes. Since first launching in 2006, its lab has processed results for more than 6,000 women worldwide. Because the pink or blue test is classified as non-medical, it's not regulated by any federal medical guidelines, but ethicists will be watching.

"If we see some of the technology like this taking off, and we start to see it having an impact on sex ratios, that might be the point where it makes sense to start to think about putting stricter regulations or even a ban in place," said Dr. Magnus.

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