National guidelines oppose push to allow parents to choose sex of IVF babies

The cycle-specific live birth
rate decreased with increasing maternal age and with increasing cycle number.
The cycle-specific live birth rate decreased with increasing maternal age and with increasing cycle number. Photo: Getty Images

Australia's peak medical council has knocked back a push to allow parents to choose the gender of their baby in new national guidelines.

But the National Health and Medical Research Council left the door open for future changes, suggesting sex selection may be ethical. 

On Thursday, the NHMRC banned clinics from offering gender selection for non-medical purposes in its long-anticipated guidelines for assisted reproductive technologies (ART).

The council's working committee – the Australian Health Ethics Committee (AHEC) – had recommended the council consider condoning sex selection in certain circumstances.

But the NHMRC ultimately concluded the Australian public was not yet ready for such a radical change. 

"Despite AHEC's majority view that there may be some circumstances where there is no ethical barrier to the use of sex-selection for non-medical purposes (current regulations apply) until such time that wider public debate occurs and/or state and territory legislation addresses the practice," the report read.

ART facilities, including IVF clinics, must abide by the guidelines in order to retain their accreditation. 

Several IVF clinics made submissions arguing for families that already have at least two children of the same sex to be able to choose the gender of the third. Currently, gender selection is only allowed in Australia on medical grounds to reduce the risk of serious genetic conditions.

The power to choose a baby's gender for family balancing is already widely available overseas and Australians are heading to the US and Asia for access, Fertility Society of Australia president Michael Chapman said.


There was "extensive debate" within the working committee and in the media concerning whether would-be parents should be permitted to make an autonomous decision about the sex of their baby for non-medical purposes,  chair of the AHEC Ian Olver​ said.

"However there has also been significant community concerns about this practice," he said. 

AHEC did not wish to endorse or perpetuate gender stereotyping or cultural bias based on sex, Professor Olver said. 

But the committee hoped a reference in the appendix of the guidelines that stated sex selection may be ethical would stimulate public debate needed to affect legislation.

Further public discussion needed to take place before sex-selection could be recommended, he said.

"Australian society needs to be ready both socially and politically," he said. 

The NHMRC also quashed suggestions that sperm donors be offered financial compensation, diverging from the UK's decision to provide donors with $1278 in "gratitude".

More than 200 submissions during the consultation period raised issues concerning ART, including counselling for would-be parents, commercial surrogacy and international surrogacy, genetic testing, and sex selection for non-medical purposes.