Drs. Shettles and Ericsson

For decades two physicians appeared to be at the center of baby gender selection: the late Dr. Landrum B. Shettles, with his method of timing intercourse to a certain time in a woman’s monthly cycle; and Dr. Ronald J. Ericsson, with his laboratory method of separating boy and girl boy chromosomes by filtering patients’ sperm through a water-soluble protein solution called albumin.

Countless couples have read Dr. Shettles’ book, How to Choose the Sex of Your Baby (first published in the 1960s), and tried his at-home method to influence the gender of their children. Many other couples have gone to fertility clinics that offer the Ericsson Albumin Method (first developed in the 1970s) and tried to conceive their desired son or daughter. Some couples were successful in their attempts and ended up having the baby they were looking for. Many were not, and had Shettles “opposites” or Ericsson opposites. These babies, of course, have been much loved, but they were not of the gender that the couples were working toward. The one thing that these two methods share is a lack of credible published scientific data to support them.

Do these methods work? Were these doctors on to something? Or, like other methods tried over the years, is it just another crapshoot, and are the children conceived through these techniques still coming out the usual 50:50? Let’s take a look at each method and digest the “science” behind it.

THE FAMOUS SHETTLES METHOD

Not everyone who’s interested in influencing the sex of their next baby has heard about Dr. Ericsson and his laboratory method, but almost all have heard of Dr. Landrum Shettles and his infamous book. Coauthored with David M. Rorvik, How to Choose the Sex of Your Baby has for years been the sex selection “bible” for many a couple who’ve wanted to try at-home methods of “swaying” for gender. The book has been revised and updated numerous times, including in 1997 when Dr. Shettles was still alive and then again in 2006, a few years after he passed away.
Despite the number of Shettles opposites born and despite the fact that the author is deceased, would-be parents continue to believe in his method and to buy his book in droves. And whenever someone gets the gender of baby they were looking for, they believe wholeheartedly that it was Shettles’ method that brought them their sought-after son or daughter.

A Success Story

I really wanted to have a daughter, because of the close relationship I have with my mother. I just felt like I would not ever feel complete without one. So we used Shettles. We had sex three to four days before ovulation. I thought it was too early before ovulation to conceive. Well, we were lucky because not only did it work, but it resulted in a girl. I figured we had a good chance since I conceived my second son the day of ovulation. —ANDREA K.

The basic point that Dr. Shettles and his book makes is that calculating the time of the woman’s ovulation—and then attempting conception during certain times of her cycle—is the most important aspect of trying for a certain gender.

The idea is that Y-bearing sperm swim faster but don’t last as long as the bigger, hardier X-bearing sperm. According to the method, for a boy baby, a couple should aim at timing sex on the day of ovulation, or the day before; for a girl, the couple should try a few or more days before ovulation. (This timing for a girl baby is quite difficult, and women are recommended to track their cycles for several months in advance to pinpoint their normal time of ovulation.) This method follows the theory that the vaginal environment is basically acidic most of the time, but it gets a little more alkaline the closer it is to ovulation time, favoring boy conceptions during ovulation and girls away from ovulation (when it’s a big more difficult to get pregnant!).

The late Dr. Shettles was an obstetrician-gynecologist who was a pioneer in the field of in vitro fertilization. For his sex selection recommendations, he encouraged women to use the cervical mucus method for detecting ovulation—which involves daily examining secretions from the cervix and noticing the differences during different times of their monthly cycle. Women also could keep track of their basal body temperature (BBT), a process done first thing in the morning before getting out of bed; this helps determine where one is currently in the cycle. Usually a woman will notice a temperature dip before ovulation, and then a sharp rise afterward. Many women keep a monthly BBT chart on graph paper to help them see their menstrual patterns. (This process also is recommended in general for couples who are trying to get pregnant.) And, if would-be parents are willing to put out some cash, they can buy ovulation predictor kits at the store to help with their cycle monitoring. To learn more about fertility awareness, a great book is Toni Weschler’s Taking Charge of Your Fertility, which really helps women figure out what their body is doing during different times of the monthly cycle.

In his book, Dr. Shettles also discusses the use of douches—alkaline for a boy and acidic for a girl—as an adjunct to the timing of sex in order to increase the chances of successfully practicing gender selection. Although he used to recommend baking soda douches for boy conceptions as part of his instructions, his latest book has backed away from that as a necessary part of sex selection. What his book continues to advocate for, though, is female orgasm during intercourse for boy babies, which is supposed to make the woman’s environment more alkaline and usher the boy sperm along. For baby girl attempts, Dr. Shettles has always recommended no orgasm for the woman, for the reverse reason.

So most couples who try the Shettles method religiously follow the timing instructions he provides, and the theory behind it is believed by many supporters far and wide. For couples who want to add a little something extra to their attempt, they also may try to change the woman’s cervical pH levels with the use of douching and follow the recommendations about orgasms.

For some who have tried this method and it has “worked” for them, they really believe in it. They are convinced they got their desired baby through following the doctor’s instructions. And the Shettles book includes numerous letters from couples who swear by the method and had a happy conclusion upon using it. The 2006 book reports an overall success rate for boy conceptions at a little over 80 percent, and a little under 75 percent for girl conceptions, for couples who have reported their use of the method. Informal surveys, however, show a much closer ratio to the 50:50 seen in regular conceptions, and everyone who knows someone who did Shettles seems to have a story about a Shettles failure (not that the baby is a failure, of course, but the method just did not work).

The Shettles book claims its method to be the “method best supported by scientific evidence,” and the book’s relatively high status on the Amazon rankings list shows how people continue year after year to be convinced of (or at least curious about) this natural gender selection method.

But fertility doctors are not so convinced, and many flat out deny its efficacy. Experts do not believe in this method, and many will tell you there is no evidence that it works.

Dr. Alan Copperman, director of reproductive endocrinology at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York, doesn’t think there is much credibility to Dr. Shettles’ theory that the Y-bearing sperm swim faster. “The difference in swimming speed between the average male and the average female sperm is either zero or negligible,” he states.

And for evidence of whether the Shettles technique works, look no further than all the parents who put their earnest efforts into the method and ended up with another boy or another girl when seeking a different gender.

A Word of Warning

“Don’t use Shettles! We followed it perfectly, conceived the first month, and my Shettles girl came out with a penis. But that’s OK, too.” —CASSIE C.

Family of Boys

“My mother-in-law said the boys in their family line only produce boys (her mother-in-law said the same thing to her). Well, I became convinced (how ever illogical it was) that I, too, would only have boys. I was desperate to sway the odds. I actually tried the Shettles method—[resulting in] another boy.” —ANNE K.

Some couples thought the method was all they had to go by, especially before high-tech gender selection became known. Others knew about the new technologies, but couldn’t or didn’t want to go that route. So they tried Shettles, and either didn’t get pregnant, or got an “opposite” baby to love and raise. Many ended up going for yet another baby after that, realizing eventually that the scientific technologies gave them more of a guarantee. Some parents just cannot give up the dream for that elusive baby and decide to spring for the technology after (they feel) Shettles has failed them. Almost everyone interviewed for this book whom had gone on to try MicroSort or PGD had tried Shettles first, for an earlier child. They all wanted to give sex selection another try, but in a more effective way.

Regrets for Going Low Tech Instead of High
“Two years, we [researched] the high-tech stuff, but decided the cost could go better elsewhere. We did the Shettles method, and we used Clomid (there are studies indicating an increase in odds for a girl with the drug). We ended up with a boy.
I actually regret not going the high-tech route now. I thought I would be OK with whatever gender our third turned out to be. I was not. It really was like grieving. We had decided three was it, but we are now considering a fourth after all. We will go high tech, though.

So ironically it will end up costing us more overall, since we will have four kids instead of three smile. They are adorable, but if I were in [someone else’s] shoes faced with the “last chance,” I would seriously consider high tech despite the cost. If you have a boy anyway, you will at least know that you did everything possible.” —HEATHER W.

ERICSSON’S “SPINNING” METHOD

For those who have wanted to try something more than the Shettles method for sex selection, they may have heard of the Ericsson method, commonly called “sperm spinning.” Dr. Ronald Ericsson of Gametrics Limited developed his Ericsson Albumin Method in what was reportedly the first laboratory process for separating men’s sperm for baby gender selection. His patented methods in the 1970s intended to separate Y-bearing sperm (for male babies) from X-bearing sperm (for female babies) through a filtering process. This process is based on the scientific truism that the X chromosome is larger than the Y chromosome. Therefore, the X-bearing sperm are heavier than the Y-bearing sperm.

In this process, semen is placed on top of a gradient column in a test tube. The more dense layers of albumin are at the bottom of the tube and the less dense layers of albumin are at the top. The tube is then placed in a centrifuge and spun. The spinning then creates acceleration that acts on the sperm. From high school physics, we know that force equals mass times acceleration (or F = Ma). The force acting on the heavier female sperm is therefore greater than the force acting on the lighter male sperm. This increased force causes the female sperm to move further toward the bottom of the column against the resistance provided by the albumin. The sperm cells collected from the bottom of the tube would therefore be predominately female while the sperm from the upper part of the tube would be mostly male. The sperm of the desired gender are then processed for artificial insemination of the prospective mother.

So far so good, right? Wrong. The problem is that although the mass of chromosomal DNA is 2.8% greater in the female sperm, the mass of the entire sperm cell is made up of many other things like the tail, membranes, and vesicles. The overall difference in the mass between male and female sperm is therefore negligible. The minute difference in mass between male and female sperm would not be able to be exploited by an instrument as crude as a centrifuge. As Dr. Potter likes to say, “It would be like trying to remove a splinter with a pipe wrench.” So while this might initially sound appealing in theory, in practice it does not work.
For boy attempts with this method, Gametrics Limited claims a success rate of approximately 78–85 percent (if the woman gets pregnant). For girl attempts, it claims success 73–75 percent of the time. These claims are dubious at best and are not supported by any reputable scientific publications. Says Dr. Potter, “In the competitive marketplace of gender selection, if they really had this data they would publish it.”

For the Ericsson method, clinic doctors perform the insemination during a woman’s anticipated ovulation time using the separated, enriched sperm. For male attempts, the doctor will place the prepared sperm specimen containing mostly Y-bearing sperm via intra-uterine insemination, according to Jennifer Fisher of the Midwest Fertility Center, an Ericsson center outside of Detroit. For female attempts, the specimen containing mostly X-bearing sperm will be placed via intra-cervical insemination; for women wanting daughters, they also are told to take the fertility drug Clomid, Fisher says.

The stated Ericsson mission is “to provide safe, reliable and proven technology to allow parents to select the sex of their child.” Couples who decided to undergo this procedure become patients at one of the Ericsson-licensed clinics in the United States or abroad.

Couples start by having a consultation with a doctor at one of the clinics that offers the Ericsson method for sex selection. Some do it for genetic reasons, namely to avoid sex-linked diseases that run in the family. The wife’s monthly cycle is monitored using her past menstrual patterns, her basal body temperature charts, physical examinations, and blood hormone tests. Then on the day that is most likely the woman’s ovulation time, the man provides a fresh semen sample for processing.
A few hours after the semen sample is provided, the woman is inseminated. There is no guarantee of pregnancy, and company statistics show an average of three attempts (separate cycles) before a pregnancy is achieved. Some women get pregnant quicker, some take longer, some may not conceive at all. Thousands of babies have reportedly been born through the Ericsson method.

For couples who are not near a facility that offers MicroSort or PGD, or are turned off by the higher prices of the newer technologies, they may find the odds of Ericsson sex selection appealing. For many years individuals in the United Kingdom and other countries have tried the Ericsson method, some before they knew of any other high-tech options. For other couples, the logistics made more sense than traveling far for gender selection.

Fifth Time’s the Charm

“I am in the U.K. and contemplated MicroSort in the U.S. but practically, financially, and emotionally this would have been really tough. We thought Ericsson was the next best thing and certainly better than trying again naturally. The clinic was quite close to us and the more realistic option. It took five attempts to get pregnant and we very nearly stopped at four attempts to try O+12. My husband changed his mind at the last minute and call it fate if you’d like, but that fifth attempt resulted in my daughter. … I felt as though this bundle I was carrying was the most precious thing in the world. I still can’t believe she is mine!” —EMMA D.
However, almost as much as with the Shettles babies, for every success story you may hear of the opposite too, with Ericsson attempts. Dr. Ericsson has stated that his laboratory process cannot completely separate the X- and Y-bearing sperm. Many families can attest to this gross understatement.

Not So Lucky with Ericsson

“I used the Ericsson clinic in Detroit. We got an opposite on our first try. Then I did a MicroSort insemination four years later and conceived my daughter.” —SHARYN L.

One patient reported that her local fertility clinic used to perform the Ericsson method for gender selection patients but the doctor discontinued the process because the clinic was not satisfied with the results they were getting. “He felt like it was a coin toss each time. He was really interested in MicroSort.”
Dr. Copperman is skeptical of the science behind the Ericsson method. “In theory, there should be a slight difference [between the two kinds of sperm] based on the difference in DNA, but in practicality, there is no value to separating sperm through filtration.”

Dr. David Karabinus of Genetics & IVF Institute points out that in Great Britain, where all fertility treatments and embryo research are regulated by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, the organization officially recommended that genetic disease patients not use such methods as Ericsson sperm separation because there is no evidence that they work! According to the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology in London, attempts to replicate the results of the Ericsson method have not always been successful.

So is Ericsson an effective method? Or are there too many opposites conceived? Some experts feel that proper data gathering from all of the Ericsson clinics has not been done, and that the reported success percentages are not accurate. Also, the method seems to work better for producing male babies, and some say that has more to do with timing the inseminations at ovulation than on the sperm filtering procedure itself. Others speculate that some of the female successes come from the use of Clomid and not from the sperm separation. Some published studies have shown that the Ericsson method and other spinning techniques really score little better than 50:50 in sperm selection.

And now that PGD technology is advancing in many fertility clinics, a test of the Ericsson method can be seen in the embryology lab. Some couples have chosen to combine Ericsson sperm separation with IVF/PGD in an effort to create embryos of the desired sex and then implant them in the woman’s womb. But strangely enough, when the husbands’ sperm went through the Ericsson procedure and then were used to fertilize their wives’ eggs, the embryos created were coming out 50:50! Around half were male and half were female.

Still a Toin Coss?

“My wife and I wanted a son, and we don’t live near either of the MicroSort facilities. We did, however, know of a fertility clinic in the area that was said to do the Ericsson method. Paula had had some history with miscarriages, and we thought it would be beneficial to do PGD and select the best embryos to put back and give us the best chance of a healthy baby. The clinic agreed to separate the sperm first and then do IVF and biopsy the embryos through PGD. We were all geared up to do sex selection for a healthy baby boy. After going through the entire egg retrieval process and creating nine decent embryos, we were shocked to discover that five of them were female and only four were male! The Ericsson sperm separation didn’t seem to make a bit of a difference! After a couple days we were down to one viable male embryo. My wife didn’t get pregnant. Next, we’re going to try MicroSort.” —DAVID L.