National Post

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Monday, June 28, 1999

Rock warned about opposition to plan to prohibit sex selection by parents

Paul McKeague
National Post

OTTAWA - Government officials have warned Allan Rock, the Health Minister, that his plans to prohibit parents from selecting the sex of their children are facing opposition from groups that charge such a ban would violate women's rights.

The use of sex-selection technologies, which often lead to the aborting of unwanted female foetuses by couples who prefer sons, has frequently been condemned as discriminatory and degrading to women.

But as he prepared for a meeting last September with Hedy Fry, the Secretary of State for Multiculturalism and the Status of Women, Health Canada officials issued Mr. Rock a memorandum alerting him that some women's groups oppose a ban.

"The issue of sex-selection for non-medical reasons has received mixed support from groups within the secretary's constituency," says the memorandum, obtained by Southam News under access to information procedures.

"While some support a ban on sex selection for non-medical reasons, others see the ban as an infringement on women's right to choose."

Under the heading "suggested speaking points," briefing notes to Mr. Rock propose that he tell Ms. Fry: "I understand that the issue of sex-selection for non-medical reasons is unresolved within the multicultural and women's groups.

"Some groups support government action to prohibit sex-selection because it is discriminatory, while other women's groups see it as infringing on a woman's choice."

In legislation dealing with issues concerning reproductive technologies that died when the 1997 election was called, the federal government proposed banning sex-selection for non-medical purposes.

The memo to Mr. Rock indicates the federal government will take a similar stand in the new legislation on reproductive technologies that is expected to be presented this fall.

"Health Canada views sex-selection for non-medical reasons as a highly discriminatory practice that devalues the female in society," the memo says. "This is not viewed as an abortion or choice issue."

The briefing notes say Mr. Rock proposes "to allow testing for medical reasons . . . but not just for determination of sex."

The notes specify gender-linked diseases as one reason testing might be performed to determine the sex of a child. Some parents carry a genetic illness that strikes only one sex.

But the goal of sex selection is often simply to ensure a male child. The Royal Commission on Reproductive Technologies noted that "the preference for sons is strong among some Canadians," and that "some ethnocultural groups in Canada value sons more highly."

The briefing notes added: "Indeed, those who make a business of providing diagnosis of foetal sex often justify their actions in terms of respecting cultural minorities."

But the commission said it also had concerns "that prohibiting sex-selective abortions would require authoritarian measures and place grave restrictions on women's autonomy and reproductive freedom."

There were fears, the commission reported, that there would be intrusive attempts to monitor women who were informed of the sex of their foetus and to determine whether sex preference was the reason for a woman's request for an abortion.

The commission's report, which was issued in 1993, noted that there are three sex-selection methods. The most widely known involves prenatal testing to detect the sex of the foetus, followed by abortion if the foetus is not of the preferred gender.

But there are also two methods to influence the sex of the foetus before pregnancy.

One involves sperm treatment in an effort to isolate sperm with the desired chromosome -- those that carry a Y-chromosome will lead to the birth of a boy and those with an X-chromosome will produce a girl, if fertilization occurs. Assisted insemination with the treated sperm is then performed.

The other method involves in vitro fertilization followed by a diagnosis of the sex of the resulting zygotes produced by the fertilization of eggs with sperm. Only zygotes of the desired sex are then transferred to the woman's uterus.

Copyright Southam Inc.