Health authorities in Western Australia have reportedly given the go-ahead to a fertility clinic to perform sex-selection of embryos for families at a “high risk” of having an autistic child. According to The West Australian:There are no genetic tests for autism, so instead of looking for a gene mutation, the screening identifies the embryo’s sex because boys are at least four times more likely to develop autism.
The test, says the report, would be done in pre-implantation embryos, presumably from in vitro fertilization. In this case, “high risk” apparently means families who have two or more boys with “severe autism.”
No existing genetics testing can confirm or exclude most causes of autism. The rationale for this test is that because autism is diagnosed four times more often in boys than in girls, male embryos would not be selected for implantation. Some research has suggested that being female might be “protective” against autism. But other studies indicate that girls and women with autism present very differently from boys and might go undetected because existing criteria skew toward the manifestations in boys.
According to The West Austrialian, “chief medical officer Gary Geelhoed said it was a sensitive area.” That’s putting it mildly. Some autistic people are not happy and view the decision as eugenicist. At the least, given how multifactorial the causes of autism appear to be and the questions of how real the sex bias in autism is, the rationale being used appears flimsy. Certainly, selecting a female embryo does not guarantee against having an autistic child.