Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Clinic Offers Designer Babies Without Surgery, Genetics

Clinic Offers Designer Babies Without Surgery, Genetics

From a plush new clinic tucked away on the seventh floor of a drab Hong Kong office building, businessman Min Yoo says he can give would-be-parents the child of their dreams.

Without the need for surgery or genetic manipulation he claims to be able to give couples all they need to select the gender of their child -- a simple calendar.

His technique has, however, been greeted with scepticism by some in the medical fraternity who say there is no evidence to show it works.

"There are good times for women to conceive if they want a boy and good times for boys. We simply work out those times," said Min, of CHOIX clinic in downtown Hong Kong.

CHOIX says it uses a simple gender selection technique that identifies the best times for a would-be mother to conceive a boy and when she is likely to conceive a girl.

Min said it relies on being able to identify when a woman will have the eggs -- or ova -- that will produce a child of the required sex.

"Human biology works in cycles," said Min, who has no medical training and whose only experience of such matters comes from his mother who is a fertility specialist in Los Angeles.

"Using data we collect from the client, we work out a fertility calendar for our clients that maps out when it would be best for them to conceive a boy or a girl."

The cycle depends on physiological data particular to each client that clinicians gather from a medical history questionnaire, a consultation and a single blood sample.

"It takes about an hour or so to do, but from that we can establish the best time of conception for any couple," adds Min, a Korean-born American who helped found the company a year ago with three other partners.

They bought the only Asian licence for the technique, which was devised by a private laboratory in Switzerland. The lab is in the process of patenting the procedure and may not be named.

A treatment package, including midwife visits and other medical back-up, costs 50,000 Hong Kong dollars (6,410 US).

Although since opening late last month CHOIX has only signed one client, Min expects would-be parents to be willing to pay that much to get the baby they want.

"There are many constraints on family size in Hong Kong -- not least, the generally small size of people's homes here," he said.

"Most people these days want at least two children, one of each. If they already have one, they will want to ensure the next one is of a different sex.

"This procedure takes away the risk of having to have a third, fourth or fifth baby if they all turn out to be the same sex as the first."

While CHOIX has the backing of a leading local midwife and private hospital group, some in the medical fraternity have questioned the legitimacy of the technique.

"We've had similar gender selection clinics come and go; there's no scientific or medical evidence to show any of them work," Dr. Ernest Ng, assistant professor at the obstetrics and gynaecology department of Queen Mary Hospital, attached to the Hong Kong University, told AFP.

"You cannot select the gender of a child from the cycles of the would-be mother alone -- sperm has as much a part to play, adding to the unpredictability of it."

Min is resolute his business is valid.

"The point is," argues Min, "this is not a medical procedure. It is pointless asking a medical practitioner because there is no medicine involved.

"It is all about natural timing and identifying the best time to conceive. It's akin to the rhythm method that has been used for years to avoid conception."

The procedure has been put forward as a possible solution to growing population problems in China, where the cultural premium placed on sons has produced orphanages filled with baby girls and where the punitive one-child policy has produced high numbers of backroom abortions.

Although Ng questions the ethics of such a suggestion, saying such gender selection is banned in some countries on the grounds it could destabilise the male-female balance, Min questions it on commercial grounds.

"This is not an answer to China's population problem but an aid for family planning," he said. "And anyway, I'm not so sure those traditional views really hold in modern China -- except in the backward rural areas."

Min is confident the technique will sell among Asia's middle classes because there are no medical risks nor religious objections to a procedure that requires no manipulation of human embryos.

In fact he is so confident the company offers a full money-back guarantee if a client conceives a child of the wrong sex.

"We can't guarantee you will get pregnant, but we are pretty certain that when you do, we'll know what the sex (of the baby) will be."