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Three couples among 124 who have applied to a Health Ministry national committee for choosing the sex of their fetus were given permission, 39 were rejected, and the rest have not yet received an answer, said Professor Vaclav Insler, chairman of the approval body during a joint session of the Knesset's Labor, Social Affairs and Health Committee and the Science and Technology Committee.
Until recently, approval for a fetus to undergo pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) before in-vitro fertilization was granted only when the fetus was suspected of suffering from a severe sex-linked genetic disease.
Rare exceptions were made, as in the case of two infertile haredi couples who received a sperm donation; the men, both of the priestly tribe, did not want to be embarrassed if the babies turned out to be boys who in the synagogue service could not give the priestly blessing as a kohen, which is passed from father to son. The committee agreed that female embryos among the fertilized eggs produced by in-vitro fertilization (IVF) could be identified and implanted in the wives.
The third case was a Moslem couple who have four daughters and no sons and underwent psychological counselling due to their distress.
Labor, Social Affairs and Health Committee chairman MK Moshe Sharoni (Gil Pensioners' Party) said that the small number of approvals showed the ministry's rules were "too rigid" and that the ministry should think about changing them.
The joint committee said it intended to press the ministry to set down existing regulations in primary legislation.
Rabbi Yuval Cherlo, a member of Insler's committee, agreed that the principles are too rigid while at the same time lacking clear criteria. This forces the committee members to use their judgment, which leads to overstrictness, he said.
"There are many families in great stress [because they cannot chose the sex of their child], but they don't meet the criteria and are rejected. A family with four healthy children of the same sex will be rejected automatically, because the rules say that only if the mother is in great emotional stress can her request for sex selection be approved," Cherlo said.
But Professor Tzahi Grossman, a pediatrician representing the Israel Medical Association, said that recent studies have shown that congenital and genetic defects and disorders such as autism and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder are "twice as common" among babies produced by IVF than among naturally conceived children. Since the long-term effects of PGD, in which a single cell is removed from a few-day-old embryo to test its chromosomes, are not known, the discussion of expanding approval should wait "another 10 years."
Adina Marx of the Patients' Rights Association nevertheless urged that legislation be pushed ahead, as PGD technology is already here.
"Without legislation, there will be a black market, and only those who have the money to pay will be able to choose their child's sex."
Science and Technology Committee chairman MK Zevulun Orlev (National Union-National Religious Party) said that Jewish law showed "amazing openness" in this matter out of "moral vision and the intention to repair and not cause harm. Since the issue has a heavy moral weight, it should be regulated by a state law."
The Insler committee was set up by ministry director-general Professor Avi Yisraeli last year to deal with demand for PGD among couples who wanted to choose the sex of their child for non-medical reasons. The joint Knesset committee asked the ministry to prepare conclusions within a month and gather data from Israel and the world about the health of children born after PGD.