New diagnostic test stirs fears of sex selection

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A new medical diagnostic test will be available in Australia next year - but concerns have been raised about it also being used for selective abortions based on gender.

Non-invasive prenatal testing is available in the United States, and blood tests from Australian women are now sent to the US for screening at a cost of about $900.

But from the end of next year, pathology company Victorian Clinical Genetics Services will make the test, in which foetal DNA found in the mother's blood is screened for chromosomal disorders, known as trisomies, available in Australia.

The test is primarily used as a reliable indicator of whether an unborn baby has Down syndrome, and doesn't carry a risk of miscarriage, unlike chorionic villus sampling and amniocentesis, the two tests currently used by the nation's doctors.

But ticking another box on the form also tells parents the sex of their unborn child.

In a review of the test, published in O&G Magazine, Australian National University associate professor Stephen Robson raised concerns about parents using it to ''gender balance'' families.

Non-invasive testing (ultrasound) is now used to determine a baby's sex at about 20 weeks, but the new tests can accurately determine gender from nine weeks.

Dr Robson said testing before women had contact with obstetric carers could profoundly alter reproduction in developed countries. He quoted a 2006 study published in The Lancet that found more than 10 million female foetuses were unaccounted for in some countries, ''presumably victims of the abhorrent practice of termination for no other reason than the foetus being female''.

''The potential downside of this test is you can tell the sex of the baby, very accurately and as we know in a number of countries in particular female babies are subject to termination,'' Dr Robson said.

But University of NSW associate professor Gavin Sacks said this wasn't a concern in Australia, and believes it won't change the demographics of the country.

''I think finding out the sex is everyone's right, the technology is there, you can't dis-invent it.

''I've never yet come across anyone who's gone for the test and chosen to terminate on the basis of that result.''