The telephone calls and e-mail messages started streaming in just hours after the first news articles reported that a uterine transplant might be in the works. One caller was a 25-year-old Alabama woman who was born without a uterus. Another was a 33-year-old Illinois woman who had a hysterectomy at 24.
All of the women, desperate to carry a child of their own, had heard that doctors at New York Downtown Hospital had harvested wombs from eight brain-dead human donors, laying the groundwork for the first human uterine transplant in the Western world. They wanted to be candidates for transplants. (One caller even offered to be a living donor, saying she had already had children and no longer needed her uterus.)
While the story concentrates on what is likely a very small percentage of women (no real numbers are provided) willing to take the risks, it doesn’t ask what makes some women go to such desperate lengths, and what does it mean as a culture to not only dismiss the individual risks but to focus our money and scientific research in this arena.
The Washington Post reported that the first U.S. transplant could be attempted later this year, but the Times plays down the imminence. Roni Rabin writes: “When and where an actual transplant of a uterus might take place is anyone’s guess. Dr. Bruce D. Logan, the president of New York Downtown Hospital, said the hospital was supportive of the research but did not expect to perform a uterine transplant ‘any time in the foreseeable future.'”
But Dr. Giuseppe Del Priore, who is leading the Manhattan-based transplant team and who is listed as the lead author of the study on uterus harvesting in the January issue of the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology, still believes modern medicine can restore hope to women who are desperate to start a family. “This is where we get our inspiration,” he said.
Desperation, though, is not justification. And just because certain individuals are willing to go to great lengths — however temporary — to experience natural childbirth, science doesn’t necessarily have an obligation to provide an outlet for their desires. Possibly time and effort might be better spent on fighting the ideology that still implies that women only have worth in our culture as bearers of children. (That, of course, becomes more difficult when someone like the health minister of Japan publicly refers to women as “birth-giving machines” — really.)
Even fertility experts are concerned this goes too far:
“For many women, experiencing pregnancy is a central part of being a woman, and they will go to many extremes to have that experience,” said Pamela Madsen, executive director of the American Fertility Association, a nonprofit education and advocacy group. “But just because we want it, does that mean it is worth the risks? There are two lives involved here.”
For women who do not have a uterus or a properly functioning uterus, Ms. Madsen said, “It feels like a loss, and it is a loss.”
“But how far do we go?” Ms. Madsen said. “Especially when there are other kinds of solutions that may not fill the emotional gap of experiencing pregnancy but will result in a healthy baby, with very little risk.”
The risks of the procedure would indeed be quite monumental, for both the mother and the unborn child. The Times does a good job of explaining the surgery procedure, step-by-step, and the potential complications — all of which makes me wonder whose interest will be served.