A noninvasive blood test can predict the gender of a fetus several weeks earlier than the current technology that can tell parents if they are having a boy or a girl around the beginning of the second trimester.
A study that analyzed the effectiveness of the test -- which isolates fetal DNA in the mother's blood -- was published in Wednesday's issue of Journal of the American Medical Association.
The Associated Press reports the test is about 95 percent accurate at identifying gender when women are at least seven weeks' pregnant -- more than one month before conventional methods. But as expectant parents can currently learn the gender of a fetus through an ultrasound at 18 to 20 weeks into the pregnancy -- plenty of time to make practical preparations -- concerns are being raised that the blood test may encourage parents to terminate pregnancies if the gender of the fetus is not what they hoped for.
Still, there are some health benefits to learning the gender of fetus early in the pregnancy -- particularly for parents who may be carriers of gender-specific genetic disorders, like Duchenne muscular dystrophy in boys or Turner syndrome in girls. In these cases, an early gender test can eliminate the need for invasive testing that carries a risk of miscarriage. The Times of India reports doctors in Europe now routinely use the tests to help expectant parents whose offspring are at risk for gender-based genetic disorders.
But in other countries -- where one gender is heavily favored over another -- several companies refuse to sell the tests. In India and China, for example, parents could be considered more likely to abort a fetus if it is discovered to be female at an early stage of the pregnancy.
At least one company requires all parents to sign a waiver saying they are not using the test for the purposes of selective abortion, Popular Science reported.
In the United States, some doctors object to what they see as an uneccesary piece of information.
"I would have a lot of difficulties offering such a test just for gender identification. Gender is not an abnormality," Dr. Lee Shulman, chief of clinical genetics at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, told the Associated Press. "My concern is this is ultimately going to be available in malls or shopping centers."