Early fetal gender detection (gender contagion?)
A U.K.-based company markets an early fetal gender detection test; they claim remarkable accuracy (“99%”) at only 6 weeks gestation. DNA Worldwide‘s website describes the test as involving a “blood spot” obtained by doing a finger prick that the woman then mails in to their laboratory, and claims that results published in a Science article in 2005 proved the technique. (They don ‘t provide a link, but a search of the Science archives reveals this article as the one they seem to be refering to; the article does not “prove” their company’s technique and doubts their claims of accuracy.)
Another company, Urobiologics, claims to be able to detect fetal gender using a sample of the pregnant woman’s urine as early as one day after her first missed period. (See this Obstetrics and Gynecology article for an assessment of the science possibly behind the blood test; a search of the PubMed database revealed this review article that is very skeptical of the possibilities of finding extracellular fetal DNA in sufficient quantities to detect in maternal urine, and my cursory PubMed search suggests that no publishing scientists are currently experimenting with fetal gender detection based on testosterone levels in maternal urine.)
Let us set aside entertaining thoughts of a lucrative business scheme in which a private, proprietary (therefore unverified and not monitored by national regulatory bodies) lab test does not have to have any scientific merit whatsoever in order to produce 50% satisfied customers who will receive an apparently correct diagnosis. There remain a couple of interesting things to note here, from an anthropological perspective.
First, the ability of consumers to discover gender at such an early stage in pregnancy has provoked hand-wringing from anxious pundits who seek weighty opinions from certified bioethicists. DNA Worldwide, which manufactures the “Pink or Blue® Gender Test,” attempts to alleviate concerns about sex-selective abortion with reassurances that they are not selling the test “into China and India and some other areas” and that they are a company that “operates in the UK, a liberal society that does not prize babies of one sex over another.” Note the easy deferral of ethics problems to a vague, far away, Oriental Other. Anthropologist Sarah Pinto, in a personal e-mail exchange, articulated the matter well when she questioned
“this idea that gender detection, among other repro technologies, is rationally mediated and managed and used in the west – that there would be no dubious uses of it here because The Problem is in son preference (or whatever gloss is used to apply to a whole complex of issues…) which lives Elsewhere in The East (kind of like female genital cutting, which only lives in Africa and the Middle East, while things like routine episiotomies, re-virgining surgery (or whatever it’s called), genital cosmetic surgery etc etc are completely different things).”
The second interesting point arises from a little line in the homepage of the test website, which states that “It is important…that No Males are in the room during collection” (punctuation as in original document). Sarah brought this to my attention and I was fascinated. What trouble could arise from the mere physical presence of a man in the same room where the blood is drawn? Was it a contamination theory? Curious, I wrote to the company to ask this very question. David Nicholson wrote back to explain,
“ The reason is because our DNA test works by finding male DNA in the mothers blood. Therefore having a male in the room could cause contamination with the sample.”
OK, so contamination was indeed the theory, but how in the world did they imagine said contamination occuring? I wrote back asking for further clarification:
“what could lead to contamination? A flake of skin or hair from a male getting into the blood sample, for example? Or the breath or sweat of the male?”
I admit to being somewhat facetious with the “breath and sweat” remark, but after a few days I received the reply,
“The breath or sweat of the male could cause contamination! It is very sensitive indeed!”*
I am not certain how the breath of a male could lead to DNA contamination, and I suspect neither are most forensics experts (who presumably could make interesting use of this in crime investigations) or defense lawyers (who could use it to dispute crime scene forensics analysis). It seems to me that it might be more accurate to warn consumers of the dangers of letting the test blood or collection materials touch any foreign substance. Phrased in terms of mere male presence, and “breath or sweat,” it sounds like not a question of contamination but of a much more ephemeral contagion.
Finally, turning to Urobiologics, my favorite quote from the site came from the FAQ section on May 30th. In response to the question, “But my doctor says it is impossible to do it by urine,” the site stated, “Usually, the customers have the impression that their physician knows everything. This may not be true.” As of this writing, however, they had removed that answer — so satisfying to anyone who has ever questioned medical authority! — and replaced it with the blander: “Research has proven that fetus can be determined by measuring testosterone from urine between 6th to 10th week of pregnancy” and a translation of a 1974 (!) abstract from a German medical journal.
* The second e-mail response was not signed. My thanks to David and DNA Worldwide for their speedy and cordial responses to my e-mail questions.