AT 26, with a baby daughter, a Hong Kong mother and her husband wanted a second child. To make sure it would be a boy, they paid US$9,000 (RM28,800) and flew to Thailand, the last place in Asia where gender selection treatment is available and breaks no law.
“In Chinese tradition, a girl and a boy means good, perfect,” said the mother, who requested anonymity.
“There’s nothing wrong with girls, but in Hong Kong and Chinese tradition all families like boys.”
The mother is one of hundreds of women from mainland China, Hong Kong and Australia who visit Bangkok each year for in vitro fertilisation (IVF) with the option of choosing the child’s gender by discarding fertilised eggs, or embryos, of the unwanted sex.
Still, its efforts to stop IVF gender selection have been complicated by a number of factors. It has no powers to prevent clinics providing the service because there is no law governing its practice in Thailand.
“Sex selection for non-medical reasons is not encouraged, but neither is it prohibited in the US, according to the latest guidelines,” the American Medical Association says on its website.
As in Thailand, South Africa currently has no legal provision governing the technique.
The business is estimated to be worth about US$150 million (RM480 million) last year, according to one Hong Kong agent who organises gender selection packages.
Demand is growing about 20% a year, some Thai providers said, with the number of clinics rising to meet it.
With Parliament dissolved since last December and an army government now in power, calls for legislation remain in limbo.
“We have worked to put this issue into law for more than 10 years” she said.
“It’s not an issue that politicians will pay much attention to.”
The Asian country has become the go-to destination for Chinese couples not willing to leave the gender of their baby to chance.
They pay fees that can run close to US$30,000 (RM96,000) in some cases for packages including a cycle of treatment lasting two to three weeks.
10,000 treatments a year
Alfred Siu Wing-fung, a Hong Kong agent selling Bangkok gender selection packages to about 200 Chinese couples a year, said as well as people from poorer rural areas his business, Eden Hospitality, had strong demand from wealthy professionals wanting certainty about their offspring.
Siu estimates about 10,000 gender selection cycles were carried out in Bangkok last year, at an average cost of US$15,000 (RM48,000) per treatment. While medical equipment and drugs are imported, clinics are staffed mostly by Thai doctors and nurses trained overseas.
He offers two packages: 280,000 Thai baht (RM27,840) for a basic service including flights and accommodation, and 900,000 baht (RM88,960) for VIP treatment, including nannies and catering.
Dr Robert Woolcott, director of Genea Ltd, the third-largest IVF company in Australia, said Genea routinely recommended that couples wishing to choose the gender of their baby visit Bangkok’s Superior A.R.T. (for Assisted Reproductive Technology), a clinic it partly owns.
“I think the third one should be natural,” she said.