No safeguards for sex selection parents

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 November, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 November, 1993, 12:00am

THE establishment of a gender choice centre may realise the dream of many couples who want to choose the sex of their babies through the latest technological means.

But they will be taking risks, not least with their prospective babies because Hong Kong has no mechanism to monitor the operation of scientifically assisted human reproduction (SAHR).

As early as 1987, the Government set up the Committee on Scientifically Assisted Human Reproduction. The committee has worked strenuously for five years and asked the public for its views before coming up with its final report in March last year.

One major recommendation of that report was to ask for the early establishment of a statutory body to register institutions carrying out SAHR and for the introduction of codes of practice governing those institutions.

The report was held in abeyance for 10 months before the Government released it for public consultation this year.

Health and Welfare branch officials have from time to time said that SAHR is low on their list of priorities, implying that the matter is not urgent.

But suddenly a centre offering gender choice of babies has opened. It opened for business on Monday.

That same morning, the Legislative Council's health panel asked government officials how the centre was covered by the law. The officials present said they did not know whether the operation of such a centre fell within the ambit of any existing law.

They were not aware of such a centre being registered as a clinic last month and they could not say whether those in charge of it were registered medical practitioners.

Now they have had to hand the matter over to the police for investigation, and the police have to seek the Attorney-General's advice.

This shows that there is a big gap in existing laws on the monitoring of the operation of such hi-tech medical centres.

Secretary for Health and Welfare Elizabeth Wong said on Monday that the operation of a clinic of this type was legal.

She said she would await public response before formulating policy, since this was a new technological development.

The administration seems to have forgotten this: the Government started public consultation on SAHR in 1987 and it was exactly because of the imminent development of SAHR that the committee urged the early establishment of a statutory body to monitor andregulate any institutions conducting such procedures, be it sex selection, surrogacy or embryo cloning.

We would be endangering public interest and the Government could be accused of evasion if it chooses to consult the public on scientific developments before considering whether to introduce regulatory laws and establish governing bodies in circumstances like these.

However, the centre has not been established to sell a product. Its aim is to do something that affects human life, its destiny and social structure. Furthermore the new technology involves many uncertainties.

If the sex selection exercise fails and the gender is not what the parents want, should the specimen be destroyed? What will the law allow and how much will it affect medical ethics to procure the termination of a pregnancy simply over the ''wrong'' sex of the foetus? How can the parents be guaranteed that the conceptions are the result of the screened specimens of the husbands? Will the sex selection exercise lead to the commercialisation of sperm banks and will the pre-screened sperm of different donors be used to guarantee the desired choice of sex? What can the consumers do then? Is there any code of practice to ensure the proper performance of SAHR? Are there any channels of redress for dissatisfied customers? What the Government should do immediately is to establish whether such a centre is covered by Hong Kong's statutes. A statutory body, as recommended by the SAHR Committee, must be set up now.

In the meantime, consumers must think twice before they seek any service or operation involving SAHR unless monitored by the Government or governed by codes of practice. Otherwise they will not be protected by law and there will be no channels of redressshould the service or operation go wrong.

The Governor has stressed time and again the need for consumer protection. Now it is time for him to show the public that such pledges are not empty.

The writer is Legco's medical functional constituency representative and chairman of the Scientifically Assisted Human Reproduction Committee