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At the moment of conception (as the union of sperm and ovum is called), a series of important events occur. Besides the pregnancy being initiated, all future hereditary characteristics of the bub-to-be are established. Male and female elements each contain minute structures called chromosomes. Just before the reproductive cells are released, the number contained in each is halved. Normally each carries 44 chromosomes plus the so-called sex chromosomes, labelled by doctors as X and Y.

The egg contains 44 chromosomes plus XX, making a total of 46. The sperm contains 44 plus XY, also making 46. But before each starts its journey, a split occurs, so that an egg contains 22 pi us X. A sperm contains 22 plus X or Y.

At conception, the fertilized egg will then have the original 46 chromosomes reconstituted. Now, if an X sperm unites with the egg. producing an XX fertilized ovum, the sex of the baby will be female. If a Y sperm unites with the egg. an XV, or male, baby will subsequently be produced.

Enormous efforts have been made by many doctors to work out how to predetermine which will fertilize the ovum, an X sperm or a Y sperm. One American doctor claims that the nearer to the day of ovulation the intercourse occurs, the greater are the chances of a male being born. He says that vaginal secretions are more alkaline at this time, and this tends to increase the viability of the Y-bearing sperms. Conversely, the further away from ovulation, the more acid are the vaginal contents. These tend to kill off the Y-bearing, male-producing sperms, allowing many more X-bearing, female-producing ones to reach the tubes. So, the chances of a female baby being born, he claims, are augmented.

It is called the Shettles method, after the doctor. The doctors who seriously use this method with their mothers-to-be claim that it often works successfully. The method was given a boost not long ago when medical magazine New England Journal of Medicine ran a story entitled 'Gender of Infants Conceived on Different Days of the Menstrual Month'.' ft was written by Dr Susan Harlap after extensive research was carried out at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The baby's sex was studied in 3658 births to Jewish women who observed the orthodox ritual of sexual separation each month and who resumed intercourse within two days of ovulation' Dr Harlap reported. And the result?

'The proportion of male babies was significantly higher in the offspring of women who resumed intercourse two days after ovulation. This proportion tended to be lower on or near the day of ovulation than on the previous one or two days.'

She summed it up by saying: 'The results demonstrate that insemination on different days of the menstrual cycle does lead to variations in sex ratio.'

This tends to fit in with Dr Shettles' claim. The more alkaline the vaginal secretions (at time of ovulation), the greater the chance of male sperms surviving. The greater the time from this specific day. the greater the chance of the normal acidity of the vaginal fluids being present, so reducing the sperm counts that could produce a male.

Incidentally, Dr Harlap says that her reports are still fairly tentative. 'Couples should be cautioned against attempting to conceive a boy by delaying intercourse until after ovulation, until further research has established whether delayed fertilization causes birth defects.' So, there you have it.

Many attempts have been made to preselect the sex of a child. For several years, this same journal has published reports of the results of research into this. Not long ago a method was worked out for separating the X-bearing sperms from the Y-bearing ones. If this could be accurately done, then artificial impregnation would probably produce the sex desired.

Each time one was due to arrive, it was an exciting event—yes, even for a doctor well versed in all aspects of the baby production biz. Would it be a boy, or would it be a girl?

What happened? We managed to produce a girl. Then a boy. Then a girl. Then a boy. In that order, and approximately 18 months between each. All this took place in the pre-pill era. And long before Dr Shettles and Dr Harlap came up with their theories. And decades before sperm differentiation ideas were even thought of.