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No sex selection please, we’re British
  1. John Harris
  1. Correspondence to:
 John Harris
 Institute of Medicine, Law and Bioethics, School of Law, Williamson Building, University of Manchester, Oxford Road, Manchester M13 9PL;

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There is a popular and widely accepted version of the precautionary principle which may be expressed thus: “If you are in a hole—stop digging!”. Tom Baldwin, as Deputy Chair of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), may be excused for rushing to the defence of the indefensible,1 the HFEA’s sex selection report,2 but not surely for recklessly abandoning so prudent a principle. Baldwin has many complaints about my misrepresenting the HFEA and about my supposed elitist contempt for public opinion; readers of this exchange will decide for themselves.


Baldwin begins with a piece of wishful thinking:

Harris objects that in this recommendation “an absurdly high standard of caution is employed”, since a theoretical risk is associated with almost all medical procedures. This objection is misplaced: as paragraph 142 of the report indicates, the phrase “theoretical risk” is to be understood here in the light of the earlier discussion of the risks arising from the fact that flow cytometry exposes sperm to laser energy, a procedure which is known to be liable to damage DNA.

Paragraph 142 does not make that clear. It does indeed refer back to a set of earlier paragraphs but these give, if anything, an upbeat assessment of the safety of flow cytometry. Paragraph 121 states: “However whilst potentially less intrusive, and with potentially lower risk to the health of patients, flow cytometry …” (my emphasis).2 But even if the overall burden of the report does indicate unresolved fears, the standard is still absurdly high. However, so far from endorsing the report’s judgement that flow cytometry has “potentially lower risk to the health of patients”, Baldwin now regards the risk of flow cytometry as “serious”1:

Since the application of flow cytometry to humans is a new procedure, the risk of …

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