What Could be Wrong with Womb Transplants?

Opinion   Justina Miller   Feb 28, 2014   |   10:53AM    Washington, DC

The Catholic Church loves babies. One of God’s first instructions was to “be fertile and multiply,” and the Bible is strewn with stories of mothers who conceived despite infertility and old age.

So when we read that women have undergone womb transplants, because they want to have babies, that’s a good thing, right? On the surface, perhaps. But a look into the process reveals some serious ethical concerns.

In September 2012, Swedish nine women, mostly in their 30s, received a new uterus. All of the women were either born without wombs or had theirs removed due to cervical cancer. Because surrogacy is illegal in many European countries, doctors consider these surgeries a legitimate alternative; plus it allows a mother to carry her own child. The procedure has been performed twice before in Saudi Arabia and Turkey, both times with no success of birth. In Turkey, a mother became pregnant, but lost the baby after two months. The process has also been performed on mice, sheep, and baboons, but also without resulting in any offspring. Despite the unfavorable outcomes thus far, five more womb transplants are set to take place in Britain, where the U.K. charity, Womb Transplant UK, is in the process of raising 500,000 pounds for the operations.

SONY DSCNow we wait in anticipation to see if any of the “new” uteruses will carry a baby for nine months. Swedish physician, Dr. Mats Brannstrom is optimistic, though he did state, “This is a research study. It could lead to (the women) having children, but there are no guarantees … what is certain is that they are making a contribution to science.”

I wonder if Dr. Brannstrom has considered the price of this advancement in science? Unlike most organ transplants, not two people, but at least three are at major risk.

The first person at risk is the donor. The woman who donates her womb is not undergoing an average hysterectomy. For the purpose of transplant, the doctor takes much more of the surrounding blood vessels. Even the British doctors agree here that it isn’t ethical to remove an organ from one person for an operation that isn’t actually life-saving (British doctors plan to take wombs from dead or dying women). Finally, the donor is now without a womb, thereby stripping her of her own fertility.

Secondly, the mother is put at risk. Beyond undergoing a major surgery, she is required to take anti-medication drugs which can cause “high blood pressure, swelling and diabetes and may also raise the risk of some types of cancer.” Doctors recognize that these drugs are so subversive, that the mother is actually only allowed to be on them for a maximum of two pregnancies (they are not supposed to cause harm to the baby- a theory yet to be tested). Because there have been no successful births to date, mothers face the huge possibility of the physical and emotional distress of miscarrying.

Thirdly, the babies are at risk. The women who received new wombs all have functional ovaries, allowing them to produce biological children. Because the operation did not connect the women’s Fallopian tubes to their new uteruses, doctors took eggs and created embryos with in-vitro fertilization prior to their operations. As we know, “from the time that the ovum is fertilized, a life is begun that is neither that of the father nor the mother; it is rather the life of a new human being with his own growth.” (Evangelium Vitae 60). We also know that this form of conception separates the sexual act from the procreative act, and disregards the child’s right to be respected as a human from conception. It “entrusts the life and identity of the embryo into the power of doctors and biologists and establishes the domination of technology over the origin and destiny of the human person” (CCC 2377). As is common with IVF, doctors and mothers only intend to bring one of the embryos to term, thereby terminating the life of the all the others, and reducing them to mere science experiments. Even for the one embryo implanted inside the new womb, Dr. Richard Smith from the UK admits that he is “concerned the baby will get enough nourishment from the placenta and if the blood flow is good enough.”

As Christians, even as humans, we are drawn to love life. While it is our responsibility to show compassion to parents struggling with fertility, we must also encourage parents to pursue conception in a way that respects the human dignity and rights of all parties involved. Donum Vitae tells us that, “a true and proper right to a child would be contrary to the child’s dignity and nature. The child is not an object to which one has a right, nor can he be considered as an object of ownership: rather, a child is a gift, “the supreme gift” and the most gratuitous gift of marriage, and is a living testimony of the mutual giving of his parents.”

While I understand the efforts and good will of a womb transplant, the whole procedure falls short of viewing life as a supreme gift and a living expression of God’s love. Building a culture of life begins with recognizing the dignity of every human being. When we live and promote this truth, it is no longer be feasible to consider life an inconvenience, a material for science, or an entitlement.

LifeNews Note: This article was originally published at the Truth and Charity Forum, www.truthandcharityforum.com. Justina Miller  is a Catholic writer living in Southern California. With a love for the Church and ministry, she served as a FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) Missionary on the campus of Vanderbilt University, on the FOCUS Conference Planning Team, and has worked with Mother Teresa’s homes in Kolkata, India.