Israeli couples who are entitled to request their future baby's sex were more than three times as likely to ask for a boy in 2009 as they were to request a girl, according to data recently released by the national committee on newborn sex selection.

The committee, which was established in 2005, allows parents with at least four children of the same sex and those in "extremely exceptional situations" to choose the sex of their child for non-medical reasons, through embryo screening for parents undergoing in vitro fertilization.

Fifty-four couples requested a boy last year, a 20 percent increase over the previous year. But though the number of couples requesting girls was significantly lower, at 16, it was more than double the amount of couples who made the same request the year before.

A 2004 study by the Israel Center for Disease Control found that slightly more than half of Israeli parents - 56 percent - want sons. The sex ratio at birth in Israel has been 51.5 percent boys and 48.5 percent girls over the past few years.

Last year saw more couples submitting requests to the committee, with the increase due mostly to Jewish families.

Seventy couples submitted requests in 2009, a rise of 34 percent from the year before. The number of Arab parents submitting requests rose by only four in that time, to 24.

However, most of the requests in the last few years have either been denied or are being held up by bureaucratic processes, including various forms and psychological examinations. The committee has approved just 20 requests in its four years of existence, and rejected 110.

The first request the committee accepted, in February 2006, was controversial. In that case, the panel gave a religious Jewish couple permission to choose a girl in an IVF procedure involving donated sperm. The couple said they did not want a boy because he would not be able to inherit the man's priestly Cohen status.

The Health Ministry approved a similar request in 2002, and then banned sex selection for non-medical reasons. Two ethics panels recommended the establishment of the national sex selection committee for exceptional cases, including those that might involve damage to the mental health of the parents or the future child.

Sex selection is illegal in some countries, including Austria, Switzerland and China, while others, including Britain, France and Germany, allow it only for medical reasons. Over the last few years, Europeans have been traveling to the United States, where laws are more permissive, to select the sex of their babies.

The Knesset Health Committee has been told that some Israeli women have illegal abortions after finding out the fetus is not the sex they wanted.

The Health Ministry said the committee would continue to operate as it has been at least until July 2011. There are seven members of the committee, including a gynecologist, psychologist and ethicist.