For a mom-to-be, finding out the sex of her baby is now almost as easy as learning she's pregnant.
An at-home test, on sale at drug stores in the U.S. and a handful of retailers in Canada, can tell whether she's carrying a boy or a girl as early as 10 weeks, the manufacturer says. But some worry that determining gender so easily may lead to more abortions of fetuses of an unwanted sex.
Manufacturer IntelliGender advertises the Boy or Girl Gender Prediction Test as "a fun way to discover more about your baby and share the news of pink or blue as early as possible."
The test is about 80-per-cent accurate in home use, said company co-founder Rebecca Griffin - enough to satisfy many eager parents' curiosity, but still a wide margin of error.
DNA tests to determine a fetus's sex have been available for years, but they typically cost several hundred dollars and can take weeks to process.
IntelliGender's test retails for $35.95 (U.S.) and takes just 10 minutes.
Expectant mothers swirl their urine with a hormone-reactive chemical solution. Ten minutes later, the mixture reveals one of two colours: orange for girls, green for boys.
The test was first put on the market in November, 2006, and more than 50,000 units have sold online.
Walgreens and CVS started selling them in March, and Ms. Griffin said the company is in talks with "major stores across Canada" and hopes to have widespread distribution here in the next three months.
But some health and legal experts worry about the potential for using test results to decide to terminate a pregnancy because of a fetus's sex.
Medical ethicist Margaret Somerville of McGill University said the risks of misuse far outweigh any benefits.
"There's this incredibly dark side to this," she said. "It's the first step on designer babies."
Ms. Griffin "categorically disagrees" with accusations that the tests could be used for sex selection.
"I don't think that you would want to paint your nursery pink when there's a 22-per-cent chance that you're not having a girl," she said, let alone decide whether or not to terminate a pregnancy.
Nonetheless, IntelliGender refuses to sell its product in either India or China.
"They have different cultural beliefs that we do," Ms. Griffin said.
Gender selection is a problem in Indian culture because of the traditional preference of girls over boys, said Baldev Mutta, the executive director of Punjabi Community Health Centre in Brampton.
In India, the number of boys vastly exceeds the number of girls. The problem is so severe that it is now illegal for doctors to reveal the sex of a fetus to parents, Mr. Mutta said.
But he said cultural preferences for boys over girls are prevalent in Canada, too. He said the practice of sex-selective abortions is already rampant in the Greater Toronto Area and fears any tool that makes it easier to determine the sex of a fetus.
"It will be a disaster for the South Asian community," he said. "I can guarantee you that it will be used by this community to determine if it is a boy or girl."
Susan Georgoussis, a prenatal nurse at Becoming Maternity and Parenting Centre in Toronto, agreed.
"Give that this is a multicultural city," she said, "it would be naive for health professionals to pretend that there isn't potential for terminating pregnancies."
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