As soon as the Beckhams announced last month that they were expecting their fourth child, due in the summer, speculation began that this was their last-ditch attempt to have a daughter. With three boys already - Brooklyn, 11, Romeo, eight, and Cruz, five - that wouldn't be a surprise, but in spite of the scrutiny, the two have always remained circumspect on the issue.
For some other couples, however, the desire to have a child of a particular sex can be all-encompassing. Recently it was reported in Australia that a couple had taken their fight to be allowed to choose the sex of their child to the courts. The couple, who already have three sons, had a daughter who died when she was a baby, and want another girl. They conceived twin boys through IVF but terminated that pregnancy. They have vowed to go to the US if they lose their case when it is heard in March.
Sex selection for non-medical reasons has been banned in Australia since 2004 and is also banned in the UK, Canada, China and India. Not only are there moral and ethical objections to "tampering with nature" but a preponderance of any one sex leads to socio-demographic concerns about population imbalance.
Despite the illegality of sex selection, and even of antenatal screening for this purpose in both China and India, there is evidence to suggest that it is widespread. In China, with its one-child policy, and the cultural preference to have a son, there have been reports of neglect, abandonment, abortion and even infanticide of female babies.
Last year, a book published by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences stated that the male:female ratio at birth was 119 boys born for every 100 girls, rising to 130 boys to 100 girls in certain provinces. The world average is 107 boys to every 100 girls.
In India, where having a girl brings with it the burden of having to provide a dowry, there are similar reports of population imbalance. A United Nations Population Fund report in 2007 noted that despite certain rural areas having a very high ratio of boys to girls, there was a higher average imbalance in urban areas attributable to more effective, although illegal, antenatal sex selection techniques available in the cities.
There are less controversial methods of sex-selection or "family balancing" available, though their effectiveness is questionable. Diets abound that claim to offer a sure-fire way to have a girl/boy. One internet company offers a complete pack (coloured blue or pink, depending on the outcome you desire) of diet sheet, "nutraceutical dietary supplements", ovulation charts and other kit, which it claims, makes it 96 per cent effective. Others suggest eating bananas to have a boy or eating more dairy to have a girl. When Noreen Jones became pregnant with her fourth child, although she and her husband had tried to use the timing of ovulation to increase their chances of having a girl, she held little hope of success, given that she already had three boys. "I think it's human nature to want to have both sexes within the family, but it was more that we wanted a fourth child," explains Jones, who is originally from Ireland but was living in Abu Dhabi at the time. "I would have loved it if it had been a girl, but I knew it was a gamble.
"I found out I was having a boy at the 20-week scan. I didn't tell any of my friends I was going," Jones remembers. "I could tell straight away he was a boy. In my heart of hearts I was a little bit disappointed. This was going to be our last baby and I just wasn't going to have a daughter, but I saw his cute little button-type face and thought he was perfect and right from birth he was the most beautiful, happy, easy baby."
Jones felt she had to deliver the news that she was expecting another boy carefully to friends and family. "I didn't want people to pity me; I wanted people to be happy for me. I wanted people to congratulate me that I was having a baby rather than having a boy."
She remains content and philosophical: "I'd never swap any of my boys for a daughter. I have four healthy boys and our family is complete. Some things are just meant to be."
For some families, having a child of one particular sex can be so important as to give rise to real psychological issues. "Gender disappointment" is a term much used these days and the internet provides discussion forums for those seriously disappointed with the sex of their child. Others turn to psychologists for help. "Of the people who come to see me, the women, particularly in the culture we live in here, feel a lot of pressure to have a son," says Charmaine Van Zyl, a psychologist with the Canadian Medical and Chiropractic Centre in Abu Dhabi.
There can be serious medical consequences for the women dealing with such pressure, explains Van Zyl. "If they find out the sex of the baby in advance, they sometimes struggle through the pregnancy, feel rejected and that they are not good enough. More often in these circumstances they will go on to develop postpartum depression. They suffer a severe dip after the birth and it's a battle to attach to the baby."
Gender disappointment can also take its toll on the marriage, says Van Zyl. "Feelings of disappointment can cause marriage problems. A lot of it will be very subconscious and will start slowly with a little bit of resentment," she says. "Women often start blaming themselves, believe it's their mistake, their fault and can feel pushed away from the relationship."
The key is to talk about it together. "First off, couples should come together to counselling. It's a couple thing to work on. A woman might want a daughter to have grandchildren through. A father may want a son to play sport with or to carry on the family name. I focus on the reason for their disappointment, the reason they wanted another particular sex child and adjust it so they look at the positive and lighten up the situation."