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Boy or girl? Early gender determination raises ethical questions

Fauxstess cupcakes filled with creme dyed with color to match the gender of the baby.
Fauxstess cupcakes filled with creme dyed with color to match the gender of the baby.
kristin_a (Meringue Bake Shop)/Flickr (cc by-nc-nd)

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Typically, parents learn the sex of their baby from an ultrasound technician, at around 20 weeks. But a new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association reports that a simple blood test of the mother’s blood can determine the gender of a fetus as early as seven weeks, with 95 percent accuracy. That’s great news for couples who are deciding between pink and blue for the nursery walls. And even better for those whose offspring might be at risk for gender-specific genetic diseases, such as Duchenne muscular dystrophy or Rett’s syndrome. Knowing the baby’s sex sooner, rather than later, could cut down on the need for expensive, invasive prenatal testing. The test, which has been in use by medical professionals for years in Europe, is only available to parents online here in the states through private companies. But while early gender determination could be a boon to the medical community, some experts worry that the knowledge could lead couples to pre-select their baby’s gender by aborting a fetus of the unwanted sex. Could more accurate and affordable gender determination reshape the abortion debate? Do the medical benefits outweigh the ethical questions raised? Given a choice, would you want to know your baby’s sex as early as possible – and why?


Arthur Caplan, Ph.D., Director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania