A leading IVF clinic is helping clients choose the sex of their baby by sending them to an overseas clinic it co-owns, avoiding Australian rules which allow the practice only for medical reasons.
Sydney IVF, which has several clinics in NSW as well as in Canberra, Perth and Tasmania, is part-owner of Superior ART, a Thai clinic that will provide IVF for ''family balancing'' - when families with children of one gender are seeking another child of the opposite sex.
It costs $11,000 including flights and accommodation, a spokesman for Sydney IVF said.
Australian fertility clinics are prohibited from offering sex selection for non-medical reasons by national ethical guidelines by which they must abide to be accredited.
But Sydney IVF maintains it is not doing anything wrong, arguing the rules banning the procedure are hurting Australian families.
The National Health and Medical Research Council's health ethics committee developed the guidelines. Its chairwoman, Sandra Hacker, said Australians generally believed parents should not be allowed to choose their child's gender to "balance" out their family.
"The right to life should not be determined by gender," she said. "There is a view that you should be happy with whatever gender you bring into the world, as long as they are well and happy".
However, it would breach people's rights to ban them from travelling overseas to have the procedure. If they did, she could understand Sydney IVF wanting to ensure they used a reputable provider. "But that doesn't make it any more ethical, it just makes it safer," she said.
The chief executive of Sydney IVF, Kylie de Boer, said that when the company had stopped offering sex selection in early 2005 families were left "devastated".
"These were people who loved children," she said. "They had a lot of children already and they wanted to have more."
She said the clinic still received about 15 phone calls a week from parents seeking the procedure, despite openly explaining on its website it was banned and the only option was to travel overseas.
Dr de Boer said when Sydney IVF had done the procedure clients were often mothers wanting a daughter.
"The desire for a mother-daughter relationship was very strong," she said.
She believed the decision was a highly personal one which should be made between doctors and patients.
"I think the guidelines are due for review and I think the guidelines are wrong,'' she said.
The medical director at Sydney IVF, Mark Bowman, said the sense of ''loss and grief'' felt by couples who could not conceive a child of the gender they desired was as strong as that felt by infertile couples.
The president of the Fertility Society of Australia, Peter Illingworth, did not have a problem with Sydney IVF providing sex selection overseas, so long as it complied with the rules of the country it operated in.
Public debate on whether the national guidelines were right and enforceable was needed.
"What is important is the community view about these matters, not necessarily the views of IVF specialists," he said.
The National Health and Medical Research Council said the guidelines would be reconsidered after a legislative review into the use of human embryos. That review, chaired by the former Federal Court judge Peter Heerey, is open for submissions.
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