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Pick a Sex, Any Sex

Sonograms may be responsible for taking the big surprise out of the delivery room for millions of moms and dads, but an increasing number of parents already know what they’re going to have: They picked their baby’s sex before making the actual baby.

These days, women in the prime of health are voluntarily undergoing in-vitro fertilization (IVF) for the added benefit of pre-implantation genetic determination (PGD). In the procedure, scientists test the woman’s embryos for genetic abnormalities, such as Down syndrome or cystic fibrosis, and determine a baby’s gender – with a 99.9 percent accuracy rate and a bill in the $14,000-range.

Thousands more opt for MicroSort, a centrifugal spinning of sperm that carries a 90 percent guarantee for families who want a girl, an 80 percent positive for moms and dads who yearn for a boy and a cost of $3,000. Families without that kind of cash lying around – neither PGD or MicroSort qualifies for most insurance plans – are turning to cheaper and far less reliable methods.

One popular resource is Dr. Landrum Shettles’ How to Choose the Sex of Your Baby. First published in the 1960s by an IVF researcher at Columbia University, the Shettles Method was largely discounted by a New England Journal of Medicine study published in the 1990s. But advocates of the system of timing sex to certain points in a woman’s ovulation cycle to produce the desired gender still claim a seventy-five percent success rate. Janie Glover of High Point, North Carolina, says it worked for her twice. Daughters Katherine and Reagan are seven and three. “I would have been happy with a boy as well, but I just like girls,” Glover said. “I really thought the Shettles Method was just worth a shot. If it worked – cool. If not, well, that would be okay too.”

Britt Jordan was desperate for a girl.

The California mom contacted a Europe-based company that told her the sperm and egg only come together when they’re “polar opposites.” Baby Choice promised an ovulation calendar that would tell her the days her body would “accept girl sperm.”

Jordan was so happy the day the sonogram confirmed her third child was female that she went online and wrote a glowing testimonial. “My family was laughing at me,” Jordan admitted. “My OB/GYN said I got lucky. But it wasn’t luck. The whole thing about polarity made sense to me.” The Jordans consider it $400 well spent. Daughter Haylee is now two, and the Jordan family is complete.

Texas mom Carrie Stallwitz wants more children, but her husband has said he’ll only consider it if they’re trying for a boy. “He’s a very ‘manly’ man and wants a boy to do ‘guy’ stuff with,” Stallwitz explained. “Both our daughters are very ‘girly’ right now.”

Their neighbors – a doctor in family practice and his wife – swear by a method that involves checking the basal body temperature and using a baking soda douche to alter the pH level of the vagina. Carrie’s husband is supposed to drink something caffeinated before sex, and they’re supposed to use certain positions and to make sure Carrie orgasms first. “I think it is a combo of every method and wives’ tale out there of how to conceive a boy,” she admits.

Old wives’ tales are just that – tales – but they prove attempts at sex determination have been around for generations. German hausfraus once allowed their husbands to bring an axe into the bed to guarantee a boy. Czarina Alexandra of Russia reportedly ate a high-protein diet prescribed by scientists at the Embryological Institute of Vienna in the early twentieth century in an attempt to give birth to a male heir. After giving birth to four girls, she finally got lucky – her fifth child was a boy.

Michelle, a New York mom who asked for her last name to be withheld to protect her son, feels having preference is natural. “I wanted a girl more than life itself,” she recalled. “Not that I wouldn’t have been happy with a boy,” she quickly added. When she had her daughter, she ascribed the position she and her husband used – missionary style – to her success. Their son is the couple’s second child, and Michelle has an explanation for that too: they did it doggy style, and they got a boy.

Reproductive endocrinologist Dr. Daniel Potter pooh-poohs such strategies. He has even less patience for the companies who promise a girl or boy via methods he calls “lacking in efficacy.”

The director of reproductive medicine and surgery at Anaheim Memorial Medical Center and director of the Huntington Reproduction Center in Laguna Hills, California, Potter says none of those methods have more than a 50/50 chance of producing the desired result, the same chance we all have of producing a girl or boy the old-fashioned way.

Potter has just completed work on Family Balancing: How to Choose the Gender of Your Next Child, expected to hit bookshelves in October. The book lists Micro-Sort and PGD as parents’ best options.

Potter has a lot of compassion for parents who want to choose their baby’s sex.

“Most of the women who come to me, this is their third or fourth pregnancy, and for them, this is it.” His mother cried at the birth of her third child – another boy.

“For a high percentage of women, when they’re growing up, they have a lot of thoughts about parenting and what they’re going to be like. The baby they see in that image, often of a little girl, this baby, this image in their mind, lives in their subconscious just like a human child,” he said. “When you have to let go of that image, that dream, it is a mourning process.”

Today, Potter helps women like his mom.

“Most of the women who come to me, this is their third or fourth pregnancy, and for them, this is it,” he said. “I explain to them that there’s a 50/50 change they’ll get the gender they want for free. But they want to have one more pregnancy, and that’s it.”

Maureen and her husband already had two little boys when they paid more than $5,000 for MicroSort in 2000. After his sperm was spun in a centrifuge to separate X- and Y-chromosome-bearing swimmers by the miniscule difference in the mass of the DNA, the desired product was injected into Maureen’s uterine cavity through a catheter. She got pregnant with twins on her first try – a boy and the girl she’d always wanted.

Most fertility practitioners advocate IVF with MicroSort because it ups the chances of a successful pregnancy, but the couple wasn’t comfortable with the destruction of the “unwanted” male embryos the process could create. Using intrauterine insemination, the only thing destroyed was some of Maureen’s husband’s sperm.

“In any pregnancy, only one in a billion sperm survives to make a baby anyway, so ethically we found no harm in discarding unwanted sperm,” she said.

Reproductive public health educator Evelina Sterling, PhD, worries couples using these methods for sex selection are playing right into the hands of right-wing lawmakers.

Is sex selection playing into the hands of right-wing lawmakers? And she’s not playing Chicken Little. Georgia, where she lives, is one of a list of states that have tried to have the rights of the zygote paramount to the rights of its parents. If such a law were to pass, it could be tantamount to a reversal of Roe v. Wade.

Georgia Republican Rep. Paul Broun introduced what he calls the Sanctity of Human Life Act to the House (H.R. 4157) last November in an attempt to make the federal government recognize “each human life begins with fertilization, cloning, or its functional equivalent, at which time every human has all legal and constitutional attributes and privileges of personhood.” He’s earned fifty-five co-sponsors in the House – including six other Georgia Republicans and Republican Congressmen in nineteen other states and Puerto Rico.

“That kind of bad connotation of using these treatments for gender selection purposes affects access to fertility treatment as a whole as an unintended consequence,” Sterling said.

Careful not to condemn the process as a whole, Sterling said she’s yet to see enough research. “I don’t think the ethics and social implications have caught up with the science,” she said.

California psychotherapist Tina Tessina, PhD., author of Money, Sex and Kids: Stop Fighting about the Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage, said there are a lot of issues parents ignore when they tie expectations to a child’s sex.

“I can understand, if parents already have a child of one gender, why they might want a child of the other gender,” Tessina said. “However, gender does not determine personality or parent-child connection. So, parents who put a great deal of store in expectations about gender may turn out to be disappointed.”

“Disappointment could add to post-partum depression, and interfere with bonding,” she continued. “It really depends on the emotional maturity of the parent, but this kind of trying to control the baby’s gender – rather than just being glad it’s a healthy baby – indicates some lack of emotional maturity anyway.”

It’s not a popular topic with some moms either.

“Should a child’s gender be selected like a brand of flour off the grocery store shelf?” pondered Genevieve Hinson, mom of two boys.

“I wanted a girl,” she recalled, “When I say wanted, I was hyper-focused on it. All I could think about were the pink aisles at Target and the cute dresses. I wanted a mother-daughter relationship to share same-sex experiences and milestones with – wanted it so bad I already had a girl name picked out and nursery themes in mind.”

But when she discovered her soon-to-be adopted child was a boy, Hinson found herself strangely elated. Looking to adopt again, she’s refused to select a gender on the adoption forms: “To pick the sex of a child is just too designer-baby for me. What’s next? Eye color and height?”

“If your child’s sex means that much to you, adopt.” “Messing with nature to guarantee your child’s sex is as selfish as it gets in my book,” said Meg Robustelli, a Connecticut mom with an eighteen-month-old daughter. “If your child’s sex means that much to you, adopt,” she suggests.

That’s what Jen Galbraith and her husband will be doing. The Newport, Pennsylvania, couple is jumping through hoops to adopt two boys. “Not only can gender be selected, but hair and eye color, interests, etc.,” Galbraith said.

“To me, knowing there are 1,500 kids in Pennsylvania up for adoption, and 100,000 nationwide – and people don’t even consider that option, instead spending thousands on gender selection or fertility treatments for a custom baby – is really sad.”

But even Galbraith has a gender preference. “I’d hate to be stuck with a girl since I’m a tomboy and not girly at all,” she said.

And that’s where doctors like Dr. Peyman Saadat, medical director at the Tyler Medical Clinic in Beverly Hills find their calling.

Tyler markets itself as an affordable option for infertility treatments, but its main website boasts a link titled “Sex Selection, Sex Selection with PGD Info,” and Saadat estimates six or seven women walk in the door each month to specifically request PGD. Half of them are there because they want to pick the gender of their child.

Requests are often cultural – Potter’s practice is accustomed to patients flying in from China, a country known for its stringent population control laws and preference for male offspring. They’re also coming from Norway, New Zealand and spots in between, where the desire for girls is high. PGD is currently illegal in a number of countries around the world, including the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand.

Saadat said making this science available prevents the sex-selective abortions (SSA) the United Nations Population Fund blames for at least sixty million “missing girls” in Asia.

One woman paid $10,000 so her little boys would finally have a sister. Although sex-selective abortion is taboo in America, the procedure is legal, and a recent study published by the National Academies of Science established evidence of “son-biased sex ration” among Americans of Chinese, Korean and Indian descent. The study, put together by Columbia University economists Douglas Almond and Lena Edlund, said this is a very small part of the population. A 2006 USA Today poll showed eighty-six percent of Americans support a sex-selective abortion ban.

Meanwhile, Huntington, the largest infertility clinic west of Chicago, has at least 1,000 women using the MicroSort process each year and another 1,000 opting for PGD. Ninety percent of those parents are hoping for a baby girl.

To Potter and to parents who’ve made the baby they wanted – the way they wanted – it’s just more proof that science can give women control over their own bodies.

But it’s the rare topic that’s brought together the extreme right and extreme left – one fighting for embryos left behind by PGD and the other alleging this technology will one day be used to curtail women’s reproductive rights.

“This is an important litmus test of whether people believe in reproductive freedom or not,” Potter said. “I think people should be able to choose for themselves. They’re the ones who have to live with the consequences of accessing this technology or not accessing this technology.”

Skye Emery would tell any mom in her boat to go for it. She had no medical reason for IVF, but she paid $10,000 to get the PGD guarantee that her little boys would finally have a sister. Instead they got two, and the Nevada family is now balanced.

She’s been stung by criticism for her choice, so much so that she thought long and hard before sharing her story. In the end, she decided she had nothing to hide. “The criticism has been that I’m playing God, but it’s not like I’m picking characteristics, hair color, eye color, personality. I didn’t have to leave gender to chance,” she said. “But we were just making a baby.”

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