Wednesday, April 7, 2004
CHICAGO -- Boy or girl? Now you can pick the sex of your baby in the privacy of your own home. Or so the Internet sellers of sex-selection kits would have you believe.
The latest fad in babymaking offers guaranteed, worry-free gender selection for just $199 plus shipping. Some experts call it "snake oil."
But that hasn't stopped entrepreneurs from trying to capitalize on demand among some prospective parents.
The phenomenon first gained attention when some U.S. fertility clinics began offering gender selection for non-medical reasons through costly, often invasive medical procedures.
But it's been taken to a different level by purveyors of unproven home-use products, who are milking the increasing awareness about more legitimate sex selection methods and hoping to draw some of the same potential customers, said University of Pennsylvania bioethicist Arthur Caplan.
The only two medical procedures that experts say are legitimate -- a method requiring in vitro fertilization and the experimental MicroSort sperm-sorting technique -- have raised ethical concerns about designer babies and gender bias.
A Fairfax, Va., clinic that offers the $2,300 MicroSort technique recently ran national newspaper ads seeking to recruit patients with the headline: "Do you want to choose the gender of your next baby?"
But home-use products that guarantee results with things like douches, vitamins and do-it-yourself artificial insemination kits pose different ethical problems because "they're promising things they can't deliver," Caplan said.
"There absolutely is an audience of people who are interested in" gender selection, said Richard Rawlins, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology research at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. "The old standby is 'caveat emptor -- buyer beware."'
One home-use product is the GenSelect system, featuring boy and girl kits offered over the Internet at $199 apiece plus shipping. It is touted as being 96 percent effective if properly used. GenSelect patents were approved earlier this year, said Dr. Scott Sweazy, a South Carolina urologist who helped create the system.
The kits include a thermometer to help predict ovulation, special douches and "gender specific" mineral and herbal pills.
Doubtful at firstVeronica Moister of Lake Worth, Fla. said she's almost seven months pregnant with the girl she wanted thanks to GenSelect. She found their site while Web surfing and was pretty doubtful at first.
"It seemed far-fetched and it was online so you never know what you're getting," said Moister, 32, who already has a young son.
She said she and her husband considered MicroSort but didn't want to travel to Virginia, so they tried the low-tech method instead, figuring they'd be perfectly happy if they conceived a boy instead.
Moister said she became a convert when she learned she was carrying a girl.
Many doctors remain skeptical and say luck mostly explains such success stories.
Some "old wives' tales" methods like timing intercourse close to ovulation for a boy or douching with vinegar for a girl could theoretically slightly improve a couple's chances of success, but they're scientifically unproven, Rawlins said.
Fertility specialist Dr. Norbert Gleicher called such products "snake oil."
Gleicher made headlines three years ago when his Chicago and New York clinics became among the nation's first to offer sex selection for non-medical reasons using a technique called preimplantation genetic screening.
The method analyzes embryos created through in vitro fertilization and was designed to help couples at risk for having children with inherited genetic diseases. The screening can detect healthy embryos and their gender with nearly 100 percent accuracy. But once the desired embryo has been selected, pregnancy through IVF is not a sure thing and several tries costing tens of thousands of dollars often are necessary.
Dr. Panayiotis Zavos, a Kentucky doctor whose controversial human cloning experiments have made headlines, offers preimplantation screening for gender selection at his Lexington clinic. But Zavos also recently started selling a home-based sex selection method with a $975 sperm collection and artificial insemination kit available on the Internet.
Customers send in a sperm sample in a special shipping box via overnight express. It undergoes a 2 1/2-hour separating technique at Zavos' Lexington laboratory and is returned to customers who are instructed how to perform artificial insemination.
Zavos said he uses a "sedimentation method" to separate male and female sperm, though he declined to detail how it works. He quoted success rates of 80 percent for boys and about 78 percent for girls. He wouldn't discuss sales figures.
Dr. Marian Damewood, president of the American Society of Reproductive Medicine, questioned whether sperm would remain viable during the shipping back and forth and said she "would not put a lot of faith" in such products.
Rawlins also doubted the claims and said Zavos' "reputation among the field of assisted reproduction technologists is zero."
Zavos dismissed the criticism.
"Everybody has the right to be skeptical," he said. "I haven't sold a bottle of snake oil. Everything I've done is obviously by the book."