DENVER -- Do you want a boy or a girl? Many Colorado parents are making that controversial choice, and more doctors are offering it, using technology to guarantee they get the gender they want.
Last year, singer John Legend and Model Chrissy Tiegen made headlines for publicly saying they chose to have a baby girl, using an embryo screening procedure originally invented to weed out genetic diseases during in vitro fertilization.
It's not just celebrities using the technology to make that choice, and some doctors say gender is just the beginning. While "designer babies" may sound straight out of a sci-fi flick, options including eye color and hair color may not be far in the future.
Already, doctors can detect dozens of serious genetic diseases.
"The genetic testing that we invented actually here at CCRM has only been around about nine years," said Dr. William Schoolcraft with the Colorado Center for Reproductive Medicine. "Our patients are mainly using this technology to rule out lethal chromosomal errors in their embryos."
But it didn't take long for patients to see that the tests also show if embryos are male or female with almost 100 percent certainty.
"Word got out about what we were up to, and the number of people interested in this is unbelievable," said Dr. Jeffrey Steinberg, the high-profile medical director of The Fertility Institutes, based in L.A. "Interest has increased tenfold in the last ten years."
Steinberg has done 8,000 gender selection procedures, and he said 90 percent of his clients want gender selection for non-medical reasons, and they will travel to get those selection procedures.
"We see patients from Colorado on a regular basis," said Steinberg. "The number one reason people come is to balance their family. They've got boys; they want girls. They have girls; they want boys."
In fact, enough parents want to choose their baby's gender and the Colorado Center for Reproductive Medicine recently changed its policy to allow it.
"Patients really demanded to know. They said, 'this is information we asked for,'" said Schoolcraft, who added some patients even threatened to ship their embryos to other clinics who would give the information. "And we said, 'Well, they're shipping them anyway. We might as well give it to them rather than risk shipping the embryos across the country, which could cause them to be damaged or destroyed.'"
Although this type of sex selection is not illegal in many countries, including Canada, the U.K., Australia and China, in the United States, it is not even regulated.
"What people worry about is that this is the first step on the road to Gattaca," said Dr. Matt Wynia, the director of the University of Colorado Center for Bioethics and Humanities. "Letting parents choose the height, eye color, IQ, etc. When you start thinking about those things being very expensive, you can imagine some future world in which only the wealthy can have a healthy, tall baby made to order."
The medical community is divided on the issue, especially because of pressure from patients who feel it is their right to know.
"There are even anecdotes of people saying, "If you refuse to do this and you implant me, and I end up with the gender I don't want, then I will have an abortion and come back and have you implant me again," said Wynia.
Still, medical associations have raised concerns about everything from gender imbalance (China has 34 million boys than girls) to reinforcing sexist stereotypes to high-tech eugenics.
"At best, in their community, it's a gray area, but at the [American Medical Association], it's not a gray area. They say this is an ethically inappropriate use of this technology," said Wynia.
Wynia said U.S. parents, when given the choice, chose about 50/50 boys/girls, so a gender imbalance may not be an issue here. The argument for autonomy in a free market is also strong, he said.
And many doctors believe the process is a long way from "Designer Babies."
"We can't screen diabetes, let alone hair color, so I don't think that's in the next 20 years even going to be a reality," said Schoolcraft, who said only about one in ten of his patients want to chose the gender. "It's always been a desire among a subset, but the vast majority just say 'We want a healthy baby. We'll take anything.'"
But in California, Dr. Steinberg said he already offers eye color choice "investigationally," [sic] and hair color may come soon.
"We see gender selection as the very, very base of the science behind genetic selectivity, genetic screening, genetic purification," said Steinberg. "We're not doing genetic manipulation. We're not doing genetic engineering. What we're doing is just looking at what people make on their own. We can't make a boy or girl. Parents do that. We just let them know what they've done and let them make their decisions."
Choosing the gender is not cheap. At CCRM, it costs about $20,000 for IVF, and the genetic testing is another $5,000, so choosing the gender will set you back $25,000.