Some consider it medical progress, but baby gender selection in conservative Egypt has caused a stir among traditionalists who see it as an affront to ethics and have lashed out at clinics offering the service.
- Egyptian senior embryologist Abdelshahid Azer examines a sample at his laboratory in Cairo
- Ashraf Sabry, a medical doctor, has defied social opposition and uses in vitro fertilisation (IVF) technology
- Egyptians flags hang over a road in downtown Cairo
Ashraf Sabry, a medical doctor, has defied social opposition and uses in vitro fertilisation (IVF) technology to allow the sex of unborn babies to be chosen by their parents, many of whom yearn for a son.
"Many patients already have girls and would like a child of the opposite sex," Sabry told AFP at his controversial clinic in Cairo, one of about 50 in Egypt that offer the treatment.
Sometimes "families are desperate for a boy to carry the family name," he said.
In a country where over 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty line according to World Bank figures, gender selection is out of the reach of most Egyptians. The procedure costs between 4,000 to 5,000 dollars.
"I am married and I am a mother to four girls," said one former patient, who like most Egyptian Muslim women dons the Islamic headscarf.
"My husband and I met with Dr. Sabry and thanks to IVF we have a little boy who is now two years old," she said, preferring not to be identified by name.
The argument that the procedure will alter demographics has been rejected by some doctors.
"We are not changing the balance of the sexes. It is still God that decides whether the procedure succeeds or not," said Cairo gynaecologist Ehab Suleiman.
The practice has divided Muslim scholars. A leading Egyptian cleric, who asked not to be named, denied it was even possible to choose the sex of a child, saying that only God could decide the foetus's gender.
A group of Egyptian MPs recently presented a draft bill to parliament aimed at managing IVF treatment and banning sex selection for convenience purposes.
The Muslim Brotherhood, which controls a fifth of Egypt's parliament, is opposed to the practice. Akram al-Shaer, a Brotherhood MP who sits on the health committee, said the law will probably be debated in the next parliamentary session.
He says that the Brotherhood bloc supports banning gender selection.
"Involvement in this matter is unacceptable. It opens the door to corruption, no one can tell where it would lead. It could destroy society."
But others have permitted it on grounds of necessity, and with tight restrictions.
Even within medical circles, there is hardly a consensus on the issue.
"I don't see the point of choosing a boy or a girl if a couple has had no children before," said Abdelshahid Azer, a physician and IVF specialist who refuses to select embryos based on their sex.
"As for children who have two or three girls or more, if this creates a problem for them they should consult a religious authority," he said.
Clinics like Sabry's are able to work because of a legal loophole on the sensitive issue of selective IVF, a practice that is banned or highly regulated in several Western and Asian countries.
"I worry that some couples who can have children naturally will resort to IVF just to be able to have a boy," said Ibtissam Habib Mikhael, an MP with the ruling National Democratic Party.
"If the practice spreads, it could lead to an imbalance in society," she said.
For now, the number of Egyptian couples choosing the sex of their child is tiny, estimated at just a dozen a year, although no official figures exist.
This is a far cry from countries like India and China, where selective abortions or female infanticide strongly tip the demographic balance.
But even if sex selection is still a small practice, the desire for a male child is deeply rooted in Egyptian society.
According to an official study published in 2007, 90 percent of Egyptian men prefer to have boys, and some said they would prefer to have no children at all than to have only girls.
The study also said that 10,000 Egyptian men had sought a divorce because their wives had only given them girls.