Mums-to-be in rush for fetus sex tests

Pregnant mainland women flock to Hong Kong for a low-risk procedure that reveals whether they are having a boy in time for termination

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 October, 2012, 4:49am

A controversial procedure that gives mothers-to-be the sex of their child before the crucial abortion threshold has sparked a surge in pregnant mainlanders visiting Hong Kong.

With the question of "is it a boy or a girl" prohibited on the mainland - where families favour males - a series of clinics specialising in the DNA blood tests have sprung up in the special administrative region of Shenzhen.

"Using just a few drops of the mother's blood, you can find out at seven weeks whether you are having a boy or a girl," said Li Danni , a staff member at Hong Kong Alken, a medical services agency in Shenzhen that for years has helped mainland mothers give birth in Hong Kong.

That option, however, will disappear next year under a new law preventing mothers from giving birth in Hong Kong if both parents are from the mainland.

So the company is putting more emphasis on early gender detection - a heavily sought-after service for couples who have a preference for their child's sex.

For 7,000 yuan (HK$8,570), a couple can find out their baby's sex after just seven weeks, according to the agency.

"We will take you to see Hong Kong doctors, or send your blood to Hong Kong testing centres, which then identify the sex of the fetus," Li said. "We guarantee a 99.4 per cent accuracy rate for sex identification. If the mother-to-be doesn't have a travel permit to visit Hong Kong, she can give a blood sample in Shenzhen. We can help send the sample to the blood-testing centre."

There are restrictions regarding the transfer of blood between the mainland and Hong Kong, but the agent refused to comment on details of the transfers.

"The Hong Kong testing centre has operated for years and has been proven to be very reliable, with millions of tests turning out to be accurate," she said. "Three days later, we give you an official report from the testing centre. Then you can make your decision in good time."

That decision, for many couples, may include aborting the fetus. China's one-child policy for parents in urban areas, coupled with a deep-rooted preference in Chinese society for boys, have resulted in one of the most alarming gender imbalances in the world: about 120 males born to every 100 females.

As most Chinese families are given incentives to have just one child, they often prefer a son. Every year, about one million female fetuses are aborted, while tens of thousands of baby girls go missing.

In Hong Kong, however, prenatal gender tests are legal, but abortions usually aren't - and vice versa for the mainland. So if a gender test in Hong Kong doesn't yield favourable results, the fetus is often aborted on the mainland.

Meanwhile, authorities on both sides appear powerless to stop this blatant circumvention of the different legal systems, in the absence of mainland laws banning such overseas gender tests.

The appeal of this particular test, which is gaining popularity, is that it analyses fetal DNA in a pregnant woman's blood to identify sex weeks earlier than other options. If a Y chromosome is detected, it's a boy.

The most common type of sex detection is an ultrasound at around 13 weeks. Other options include using a needle to test fluid around the fetus at 16 weeks, or an examination of the placenta at around 10 weeks. Both of those options can help identify abnormalities, but they also increase the risk of miscarriage.

Dove Choi, a Shenzhen native and mother-to-be who is expecting to deliver her fourth child in Hong Kong later this year, said she did various gender tests for her previous pregnancies.

"My first child was a girl, so I did an ultrasound in Hong Kong six years ago while I was pregnant with my second child. It was a boy," she said.

"I did the blood test for my third child in early 2009 when I heard of the new method. It cost about 3,000 yuan, and we had a girl.

"I had an abortion in 2010 after testing the gender, because it was another girl. It's sad, but I had to, because I already had two daughters.

"I'm from a big and traditional family in Shenzhen. My parents and parents-in-law all hope we have many children, and at least two of them must be sons."

This year, Choi became pregnant again. "Luckily, it's a boy," she said.

Choi pointed out that the cost of the blood gender test has risen dramatically amid increasing demand in recent years.

"Many friends and classmates of my wife and I went to Hong Kong for the test, especially those whose first child was a girl," said Chen Jiang , who owns a factory in Jinjiang , Fujian . Chen and his wife flew to Hong Kong in 2009 when she was eight weeks pregnant, and paid HK$3,500 for the test. The results came three days later.

"It was very stressful during those three days," Chen said. "If it was a boy, we were planning to book a bed at a Hong Kong hospital. If it was a girl, we would have had to go back home and abort it.

"My wife cried a lot when we were waiting at the hotel for the report. We were so afraid of an abortion.

"It's a very … cruel decision to make, but we had no choice because of China's strict policies to control the population."

When the result came, it was as they hoped.

"The doctor told me the result was 92 per cent accurate," he said. "So we decided to keep it, and our son was delivered in Hong Kong on June 4, 2010."

Chen expects a steady rise in the number of parents-to-be travelling from the mainland to Hong Kong for gender tests.

"We had to do it, even though we understand it's cruel and unfair," he said. "It's all because of the one-child policy."