At least 90 Japanese couples have travelled to Thailand to receive preimplantation diagnosis for sex selection purposes this year, a procedure not allowed in Japan in principle, The Yomiuri Shimbun has learned.
The diagnostic procedure checks the sex chromosomes of eggs fertilized via in vitro fertilization before they are implanted into a uterus. This enables accurate gender selection for children. Since gender selection has been strongly criticised as a selfish act by parents, and is not considered a medical practice, the latest finding is likely to incite an ethical controversy.
Through an interview with two medical institutions in Bangkok used by Japanese citizens, The Yomiuri Shimbun found the number of Japanese couples who received preimplantation gender diagnosis has increased each year.
Fifty couples received the diagnosis in 2009, 61 in 2010 and 103 in 2011.
It was also found that as of July, 90 Japanese couples have received a new diagnostic procedure that was introduced in February. The new method checks all sex chromosomes in a fertilized egg.
A Bangkok-based broker said more than 200 Japanese couples are expected to undergo the new diagnostic procedure by the end of the year.
Under its guidelines, the Japan Society of Obstetrics and Gynecology authorizes preimplantation diagnosis only in cases where "patients with severe genetic diseases" are involved. The society does not allow the procedure for sex selection purposes.
In the United States, the method is not legally restricted on the federal level. In Britain and France, the method is not allowed in principle, except when it is employed to avoid triggering a hereditary disease.
The Thai medical association also does not authorise the method for sex selection under its guidelines. However, institutions that provide the procedure are not subject to punishment and the method has been conducted at small medical institutions.
More than 90 per cent want girls
According to Somboon Kunathikom, the president of Royal Thai College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, 80 per cent of 908 preimplantation diagnosis procedures performed in 2010 resulted in child gender selection.
The procedure is available at about 10 medical institutions in Thailand. Compared to five years ago, the number of procedures conducted has increased two- to threefold and most of the couples involved are not Thai citizens.
The broker said those who want the diagnosis mainly make contact through the Internet. It costs a Japanese couple about 1.5 million yen (S$23,966), including airfare. More than 90 per cent of Japanese couples were reported as wanting girls, as most said they already had at least two boys.
The broker said couples also come to Thailand from countries such as China and India for the same purposes.
'Not a medical practice'
Prof. Shohei Yonemoto of the Graduate University for Advanced Studies said gender selection of children is not a medical practice as it only satisfies parental preference and should never be allowed no matter how much a couple may want a child of a particular sex.
"That is why the Japan Society of Obstetrics and Gynecology does not authorise the method. Although science and technology continue to improve, not everything should be allowed to meet the desires of human beings by taking advantage of that development," Yonemoto said.
"We have to take into account the fact that even if reproductive medicine and other related practices are regulated in Japan, they can be readily available abroad. The government should start a fact-finding survey and immediately study the motives of people who receive the procedure and the safety of the treatment."