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Parents could be barred from knowing the sex of their unborn baby by European ruling

Irish Hospitals could be barred from telling expectant mothers the sex of their unborn baby, following a ruling in Europe.

Medical staff should be instructed to "withhold information about the sex of the foetus" according to a draft resolution passed by a Council of Europe committee.

The plan is an attempt to prevent parents "selectively aborting" foetuses – usually female – as means of 'choosing' the sex of their child.

The practice has reached worrying proportions in some former Soviet states that are members of the Council.

However, the recommendation covers all 47 member states, meaning all NHS midwives and doctors could be blocked from telling expectant parents whether they will have a boy or a girl.

Parenting groups last night expressed anger about the proposed change, while doctors said the proposals were unworkable.

Justine Roberts, founder of parenting site Mumsnet said expectant couples would feel "pretty angry and disappointed" if a blanket ban on gender identification is introduced.

Mrs Roberts said expectant parents asked to know the sex of their child on practical grounds, such as working out whether siblings could share a room, or simply because they wanted an idea of what lay ahead.

She said: "I can understand that there may be problems in some parts of the world with sex selection, but it seems ridiculous to apply the thinking to countries where this has not been shown to be a problem.

"I think pregnant women would feel pretty angry and disappointed to be told they can't be told the gender of their unborn child."

The Council of Europe, based in Strasbourg, cannot impose binding orders on governments but is highly influential in policy-making and has often seen its decisions enacted through conventions and treaties.

The draft resolution by the council's equal opportunities committee will now go before the council's full Parliamentary Assembly for approval next month.

In the UK, most maternity units are happy to tell expectant parents the gender of their unborn child, if they want to know.

Sometimes parents are told during the 12 week scan – if it is clear that the baby is a boy – and otherwise at the 20 week stage, when a more detailed scan is undertaken.

But a few NHS trusts have policies which deny parents the option, either because of concerns about prenatal sex selection, or on cost grounds.

Colchester Hospital Foundation trust reversed its policy one month ago after a pregnant woman campaigned for the right to know the sex of the baby she was carrying.

Natalie Mann, 30, a university lecturer from Clacton, Essex, was furious when the hospital would not tell her the gender of her unborn child, at 20 weeks, so she could tell children Maisie, four, and Eliza, two if they would have a baby brother or sister.

From this month, the trust has increased funding for the service, allowing 30 minutes rather than 20 for the scan, which it said gave staff time to find out the unborn baby's gender.

Midwives in several hospitals in Hertfordshire and parts of London have told mothers-to-be that they are not allowed to disclose the sex of the foetus.

Some said their policies were drawn up because of concerns that boys, especially firstborn sons, were more dt foetuesired than girls in some Muslim communities.

Others said they had been told not to disclose the information in case they got it wrong and were sued.

The draft resolution by the Council of Europe, passed on Friday, states that prenatal sex selection has reached "worrying proportions" in several member states, in particular Armenia, Azerbaijan and Albania, where the ratio is 112 boys for 100 girls, and in Georgia, where the ratio is 111 boys for 100 girls.

It calls for an investigation into the causes of the skewed birth ratios in these countries, and says prenatal sex selection should only be allowed in order to avoid serious hereditary disease linked to one sex.

But their recommendation that all public hospitals in all 47 states should not tell parents the gender of their unborn child last night caused alarm.

Dr Gillian Lockwood, medical director of Midland Fertility Services, said it would be difficult for hospitals to follow the advice, given that in some cases, parents would be able to work out the gender for themselves, while looking at the scans.

She said that while she had seen a few couples who were prone to "Victoria Beckham syndrome" – being desperate for a girl, after several boys, or vice versa – most only wanted to know their unborn baby's gender so they could paint the nursery, buy suitable clothes, or tell other children whether they would have a brother or sister.

Dr Lockwood, former vice-chairman of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists' ethics committee, also said it was hard to see how the European recommendations would prevent selective abortions in this country, given that so many received the news about the baby's gender at 20 weeks, when it would be impossible to secure a termination without medical grounds.

She said couples who were prepared to selectively aborses on the grounds of gender were more likely to resort to blood tests, which are not yet legal in this country, but sold on the internet, which disclose the gender at seven weeks, when abortions could be secured.

The committee is composed of 77 MPs and politicians from member states, with British members including Labour MPs Ann Coffey (Stockport) and Yasmin Querishi (Bolton South East) Conservative MP Amber Rudd (Hastings and Rye) and Lib Dem peer Baroness Emma Nicholson.

The recommendation, which will be discussed by the full assembly of 318 MPs from 3 to 7 October, calls on them to "consider recommending public hospitals to instruct doctors to withhold information about the sex of the foetus, or at least ensure that this information is given in a positive way, irrespective of the sex of the foetus."

A spokesman for the Department of Health said it would not comment on the resolution until it was passed but said the main purpose of scans was to check for abnormalities, and to date the foetus, not to identify the sex of the foetus.

He said decisions on whether or not to disclose the possible gender of the child should be "based on the clinical judgment of the certainty of the test and the individual circumstances of each case."