Church criticises baby sex selection report

The Church of England today criticised a report from MPs recommending that parents should be free to choose the sex of a child and that the ban on human cloning should be reassessed.

The Commons science and technology committee was split down the middle over its report on human reproductive technologies and the law, with a dissenting MP, Geraldine Smith, calling it "the Frankenstein report", while the chairman, Ian Gibson, criticised rightwingers who were trying to stifle debate.

But as vigorous debate erupted around the report, Lord Robert Winston, a leading fertility expert, defended the idea of sex selection and said he saw no reason why it should be regarded as "appallingly bad".

The Bishop of Southwark, the Right Rev Tom Butler, said the deep divisions in the committee should give pause for thought about new departures on matters that required the most careful moral and ethical consideration.

"The Church of England would oppose strongly any proposals that tend to erode proper priority for the welfare of the child or that embrace a view of children as consumer commodities. Sex selection for social reasons would have serious consequences for society as well as for families," said the bishop, who is vice-chairman of the Church of England's mission and public affairs council.

"From a Christian perspective, the child is a gift from God and should always be regarded as an individual, not as an extension of parental consumer choice. Parents need to be left to receive and accept their children just as they are, not be led into believing they can select children as they would a customised personal accessory."

But Lord Winston said the number of people who would want to choose the sex of their baby would be small. "At Hammersmith we have had a handful of requests over the last few years. But people will not go through IVF to choose the sex of their baby and even if they did it would not in any way, I think, damage the fabric of our society," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

He added: "I don't think you can regulate it. Because eventually, within the next few years, we are going to have very simple methods of choosing the sex of your baby, as humans have tried for the last few thousand years, through simple methods of sperm sorting that will not involve IVF. I think it is going to be extraordinarily difficult to regulate that.

"People will still want to conceive naturally and I don't think sex selection would change the balance of the population.

"It is purely a personal view, but the more I think about it the more I find it difficult to understand why sex selection should be regarded as such an appallingly bad thing."

Tory MP Bob Spink, who with Labour members Paul Farrelly, Kate Hoey, Tony McWalter and Geraldine Smith dissented from the report, said: "It flies in the face of the evidence we received. The evidence was almost entirely, well 85%, for a precautionary, graduated approach, yet the report was taking a shock-jock libertarian approach. It is advising some changes to the law that are completely out of step with public opinion and any concept of ethics and dignity of human life."

They condemned the potential creation of hybrid animal/human embryos, unregulated creation of embryos for research and unregulated screening out of disorders in embryos for reproduction. Mr Spink said: "This report opens the way to social sex selection and what sort of moral lead does that give in a world where in China and India women are undervalued, disrespected and baby girls are left out to die."

Dr Gibson told the Today programme: "It is a possibility that some people might want to choose the sex of their baby, but they would have to justify it very hard."

He added: "It could not be a universal thing across the world. In certain countries for social reasons people might want to have more boys than girls, the developing world and so on. But in this country there is no hard evidence to suggest that selecting the sex of a child would make much social difference."

The British Medical Association, which represents doctors, opposes parents being given the right to select the sex of their unborn child on social grounds.

Chairman of the BMA's ethics committee, Dr Michael Wilks, said: "It is important that we retain a balance between the rights of people seeking treatment, the interests of the children born and the legitimate interests of society.