The Trouble With Uterus Transplants

womens-healthLast week doctors in Sweden announced the birth of a baby after a uterus transplant. The baby is so far healthy being born at only 31 weeks gestation.

I am very happy that mother and baby are healthy enough to leave the hospital and I wish them continued health. I  also wish that this procedure is quickly rejected by the greater medical establishment.

You might ask why a pro-life person would ever be against a procedure that brings life into the world. I am against the uterus transplant because I believe it is bad medicine.

Many people, including prominent bioethicist Father Tad Pacholczyk who compared a uterus transplant to a kidney transplant, believe that this is just like another other organ transplant and so a worthwhile endeavor. I have to respectfully disagree.

Kidneys are an organ that are necessary for life. A uterus is not. A woman is not going to die if she does not have a uterus. This is purely an elective procedure.

Elective procedures are not necessarily bad medicine, but when they put multiple lives at risk then we must call foul. In this case a live donor was used to obtain the uterus. Her life was put at risk for a very invasive procedure, the removal of her uterus. Then the woman who received the uterus also underwent invasive surgery and put her own life at risk. Then the child who was gestated in a donated womb had his or her life put at risk during the most critical part of human development.

What if the mother began to reject the uterus? What does that mean for the fetus whose very life depends on the perfect functioning of that organ?

I am not the only one raising these important flags. Dr. Antonio Gargiulo, a specialist in infertility and reproductive surgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, was interview by the Boston Globe and he lays it all out:

A live donor would have to undergo a radical hysterectomy, he said, which would remove a larger portion of the tissues surrounding the uterus than in a typical hysterectomy, so that those tissues could be connected with tissues of the recipient.

Such a surgery could cause excessive bleeding or injury to the bowel or the ureters, he said, and could lead to an infection that could develop into sepsis.

“It’s a major abdominal surgery,” he said.

There would be similar risks for the recipient, Gargiulo said, who would also require ongoing treatment with immunosuppressants to ensure that her body did not reject the transplanted organ, increasing her risk of cancer.

Finally, any fetus in the transplanted womb would be in potential danger because of the risk of rejection for the transplanted organ and the difficulty of properly connecting the complex web of blood vessels that support the uterus, which could affect the formation of the placenta.

“There are major doubts,” Gargiulo said.

So three lives put at risk during an elective procedure for a non-life threatening condition: the desire to experience pregnancy.

When will it be enough? When will we draw a line and say “I am very sorry for the pain and anguish you experience because of your infertility, but this is a length to which we just cannot go.”

I also see abuses in the future. When kidney and other organ transplants began I doubt anyone realized the massive demand that would result. A demand that fuels a black market organ trade which exploits the poor in third world countries.  When surrogacy began, I bet no one envisioned hundreds of poor women in Asian countries being paid paltry amounts to carry the offspring of rich westerners.

I fear if uterus transplants become commonplace this is just one more way the rich will exploit those living in poverty not just overseas but in our own communities. If we can pay a woman to carry a child for us, then how much more would we pay for her uterus so that we can carry the child ourselves?

The chance for massive exploitation of poor women willing to sell their functioning uterus to the highest bidder scares me.  Call me alarmist if you will, but considering the world we live in, I feel this is a real possibility.

Rebecca Taylor is a clinical laboratory specialist in molecular biology, and a practicing pro-life Catholic who writes at the bioethics blog Mary Meets Dolly. She has been writing and speaking about Catholicism and biotechnology for six years and is a regular on Catholic radio.