Most expectant parents can’t wait to find out their baby’s sex.
Some have a preference, but most are equally happy whether they are having a boy or a girl.
Others have concerns about sex-linked diseases.
Until the last few years, parents-to-be had to wait until their 20 week ultrasound to discover the sex of their baby.
But in recent years, new technology has allowed expectant parents to find out their baby’s sex in the first trimester.
Finger Prick Test Can Tell Baby’s Sex In First Trimester
This new blood test is called the non-invasive prenatal test (NIPT) and it also detects Down’s Syndrome.
What Is The NIPT?
The non-invasive prenatal test is a blood test which analyses fetal DNA.
During pregnancy, small amounts of the baby’s DNA leak into the mother’s bloodstream.
The NIPT picks up the DNA present in the mother’s blood; this is known as cell-free DNA. About 10-20% of this cell-free DNA comes from the placenta, which is connected to the baby.
With advances in genetic research, the presence of fetal DNA can be detected as early as five weeks gestation.
For the purpose of sex determination, the NIPT looks for the presence of the Y chromosome. If it is detected, the fetus is a male. If it is not detected, the fetus is a female.
How Is The NIPT Performed?
Until the last few years, the NIPT was performed by taking a blood sample from a woman’s arm, in the same way a normal blood test is performed at a pathology collection unit or a doctor’s clinic.
However, in recent years companies have been marketing finger prick tests which determine fetal sex.
The finger prick test simply takes a sample of blood from a woman’s finger. The blood is then blotted onto a card and sent to a lab for analysis.
A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found the NIPT can determine fetal sex as early as seven weeks, and is highly accurate if used correctly.
The researchers analysed 57 studies involving 6,500 pregnancies and found carefully conducted tests could determine sex with an accuracy of 95% at 7 weeks gestation and 99% at 20 weeks gestation.
The study didn’t include tests that were sold directly to consumers, or tests that used maternal blood before 7 weeks gestation.
What Are The Benefits Of Finger Prick NIPT?
Obviously the appeal of the finger prick test is its convenience. Rather than the standard blood test, the test simply involves a prick on the finger and one drop of blood is all that is required.
Other benefits of the NIPT are:
- The test isn’t invasive like chorionic villus sampling or amniocentesis
- NIPT reduces the number of invasive tests needed for diagnosis
- Unlike invasive tests, the NIPT carries no increased risk of miscarriage
- Finger prick NIPT does not require specialists to perform it
- It can be offered much earlier than traditional invasive tests.
Finger prick tests have been available to expectant parents via a number of online stores for several years, but their use has been limited because of problems with their accuracy. A company that guaranteed an almost 100% accuracy as early as 5 weeks gestation was sued by women whose tests were incorrect.
In some countries in Europe, doctors use the tests in a clinical setting for parents whose future children are at risk for sex-linked diseases. The result can determine whether the baby’s sex is linked to a disease, in which case the woman might need further invasive testing. Boys, for example are affected by Duchenne muscular dystrophy but if the baby is a girl, further invasive testing isn’t needed.
In the United States, the tests aren’t widely prescribed by doctors. Because they aren’t used for medical purposes, they haven’t been approved by the FDA.
What Are The Concerns About Finger Prick NIPT?
Although studies, like the one mentioned above, are positive in terms of the accuracy of NIPTs, not everyone agrees with their use.
The tests haven’t been endorsed by groups who set guidelines for medical use, and many experts consider them to be experimental.
The ongoing debate surrounding sex testing focuses on the ethics of having such knowledge early in pregnancy, and the potential repercussions.
Western Sydney University Professor of Midwifery, Hannah Dahlen, says:
“It is important that women know both the risks and benefits of testing. False positives will lead to women needing more invasive testing and with this comes the risk of miscarriage. These tests don’t test for everything and ultrasounds for structural abnormalities are still required”.
Many health experts are concerned women will abort fetuses that aren’t the sex they wanted. Although sex selection doesn’t appear to be a major driving factor in Australia, the UK and the US, in other countries sex preference is prevalent.
Most companies who sell finger prick tests won’t market them in India or China, for example, where boys are valued more than girls and female fetuses are likely to be aborted.
The ease and accessibility of these tests, which have been created with the idea of promoting fetal health, could easily be abused.
However, the concept of women’s autonomy with regard to their reproductive rights is also in play.
Finger prick NIPTs certainly allow earlier, cost effective and safer testing than other invasive methods, but their use raises serious social and ethical questions, which present many challenges in terms of how best to utilise this promising technology.