In many European countries, including Sweden, using a surrogate mother to carry a pregnancy is illegal. Doctors have come up with another solution: womb transplants. Nine women in Sweden have successfully received transplanted wombs donated from relatives in this experimental procedure.; and there has already been one case in Sweden in which the woman successfully carried to term and delivered. These transplants are intended to be temporary and mark the first major set of experiments to test the feasibility of transplanted wombs as a means for bearing children. The experimental subjects were either born without a uterus or had to have their uterus removed because of cervical cancer. There has been one infection and minor rejections. All nine women recipients have done well, several had their periods six weeks after the transplants, an early sign that the wombs are healthy and functional. After a maximum of two pregnancies, the wombs will be removed from the women.
“Nine Swedish women receive womb transplants,” BBC News, January 14, 2014http://www.bbc.com/news/health-25716446
James Gallagher, “First womb-transplant baby born,” BBC News, October 4, 2014. http://www.bbc.com/news/health-29485996
Student Researcher: Tiffany Holligan, Indian River State College.
Faculty Evaluator: Elliot D. Cohen, Ph.D., Indian River State College
These womb transplant experiment procedures have raised ethical concerns regarding to the women being experimented on, their health, the morality of the circumstances, the future outcome of this newfound experiment and its direct consequences. What are the health risks that may occur? The women have to take anti-rejection drugs during their pregnancy for the whole nine months. This may cause high blood pressure, blood clots from the insertion of the womb transplant, diabetes, and raise the risk of cancer. However, these women are aware and informed of these possible future health problems and they have the right to refuse or take advantage of this opportunity to give birth to their own children if they couldn’t do so without the womb transplants. No one has been sent to intensive care and all of the women left the hospital within a few days.
Another ethical concern would be whether it is ethical to use live donors for an experimental procedure that doesn’t save lives. This procedure may compare to kidney transplants which aren’t necessarily lifesaving but widely promoted and despite the risks people are encouraged to donate kidneys. As long as the donor is competent, not coerced, and gives informed consent then why should it be permitted in the one case and not in the other?
It is also possible to harvest wombs from dead donors. However, using live donors ensures the donated wombs will be functional. Due to the controversial nature of the Swedish use of live donors, some British doctors plan on using wombs from the dying or the dead. Last year, Turkish doctors announced their patient pregnant using a womb from a dead person but the pregnancy failed after two months. The chances of the women getting pregnant with a womb from a dying or dead individual is less likely than the probability of their getting pregnant from a womb from a live donor.
The last ethical concern is the outcome of the experiment, whether or not the pregnancies will proceed properly and, most importantly, if the babies will be born healthy. Whether or not the baby will get enough nourishment from the placenta and if the blood flow will be good enough for the baby raises concerns. Apparently, the anti-rejection medications will not harm the baby so the concerns are primarily on the direct consequences of the experiment. In fact, in Sweden, there has recently been a baby born from a woman with a transplanted womb, and both the mother and baby appear to be doing well at this time. If healthy babies can be born out of this experimental procedure, this would be a miraculous phenomenon. There would be hope for mothers who would like to have other options other than adopting foster children or via surrogacy, the latter of which is illegal in Sweden. On balance, the procedure is, arguably, justifiable if healthy babies can be born. There will be new hope for the woman who lost her uterus due to cervical cancer or who was born without one. This would be “a new window with new options” for women who would want to experience pregnancy instead of having someone else do it for them, or adopting children who are not biologically theirs.