Dr Pankaj Shrivastav wanted to know why the Pakistani couple visiting his office were asking him to help them have a baby boy.
The couple had two daughters, and after chatting with them Dr Shrivastav realised the need to have a son was coming from relatives. “I told them look, if this isn’t what you want and you’re happy to have a baby regardless of gender, then that is what you should do,” he said. “In addition, every medical intervention has its potential complications. Why would you want to do something like this because of family pressure?” The couple agreed and left.
With the wide availability of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), doctors say they have had requests for gender selection.
PGD is intended for use with in-vitro fertilisation procedures to determine if there are chromosomal abnormalities in an embryo before it is implanted into the womb. But it can also be used to show gender.
The federal law on licensing fertility centres in the UAE does not prohibit using it for gender selection.
Dr David Robertson, medical director of the Bourn Hall fertility clinic in Dubai, which introduced PGD last September, said he had received several requests. “That’s the thorn in the science,” Dr Robertson said. “People come along and say, ‘well, we only want a boy’. We actually had one couple who asked for a girl, but those are few and far between, I’m afraid. It’s not clear what the law is. I try and dissuade them, to be quite honest.”
Dr Robertson said gender testing should be banned unless there was a “clear medical reason”. “But I’m sure a lot of people would not agree with me.” A medical reason would be family history of a gender-linked disease, such as Duchenne muscular dystrophy, which only affects males.
But Dr Shrivastav, director of the Sharjah gynaecology and fertility hospital Conceive, was concerned about regulating gender selection. “I’m always worried about introducing legislation because it can become intrusive, even when you do need it for medical purposes,” he said. “It really depends on the local environment.
“We’ve had a gentleman who was married twice and had seven girls and told us it would be nice to have a change. Who am I to pass judgment on his request? To some extent it is justified … it’s not difficult for doctors to speak to patients.”
From a religious point of view, common sense should prevail, said Sheikh Ahmed Al Kubaisi, a preacher and former head of Sharia studies at UAE University.
“These techniques are a blessing from God,” he said. “I grew up in a world where populations were dying of random diseases. Then came scientists who invented medication to prevent them.
“What man in their right mind could say this is haram? God gave human beings the ability to think, invent and gave them a choice. It is up to people to use inventions for the good of humanity. Any invention could be used either way.”
Gender selection, he said, was a matter of personal interest. “However, it is up to the Government to regulate the application of such techniques so it doesn’t face the issue that has created the gender imbalance in China, for instance, where females are disappearing.”
Doctors said most couples who requested gender selection were of Arab descent or from the Asian subcontinent. Gender selection is not allowed in the UK and India except for medical reasons, but it is permitted in the United States.
Experts say culture plays a pivotal role in how the service will be used. “Generally speaking, in a place that already has widespread biases on a social and cultural level, deciding on gender would be based on such biases rather than logical scientific or economical reasons that one may appreciate,” said Dr Nawar Golley, associate professor in literary theory and women’s studies at the American University of Sharjah.
“I’m not being judgmental but the existing biases will be perpetuated further and the gender problems we are facing could become worse.” Legislative intervention is key to preventing this, Dr Golley said. But a Ministry of Health official said the onus was on doctors, and declined to comment further.