Womb Transplants Raise Ethical Questions

pregnant bellyDoctors are now able to transplant the womb of a living relative into a woman who was either born without a uterus or had it removed for medical reasons, but the procedure raises serious ethical questions.

According to Canada’s Catholic Register, a Swedish ob/gyn named Mats Brannstrom from the University of Gothenburg in Sweden has announced that he successfully transplanted nine wombs last September and is now working on the next step – helping the women to become pregnant.

“The pioneering surgery, which potentially could replace surrogate mothers, offers new hope for thousands of childless women but it is raising ethical and moral questions within the context of Church teaching that affect both recipient and donor,” the Register reports. “For the recipient the issues concern how a child will ultimately be conceived. For the donor the issues relate to Church teaching on procreation.”

Moira McQueen, executive director of the Canadian Catholic Bioethics Institute, and the mother of seven, understands why the procedure is causing so much excitement for infertile women, but there are issues that need to be addressed.

First, doctors have yet to perfect the transplant procedure to the point where a woman’s fallopian tubes can be connected to the uterus to allow her to become pregnant naturally. At present, the only way for a woman to conceive in the transplanted womb is through in vitro fertilization (IVF), a procedure regarded as immoral by the Church.

“In Catholic teaching the use of in vitro fertilization is definitely wrong,” McQueen said. “It shows that they are not being born through an act that involves procreativity and unity. So from that perspective the Catholic Church is saying that it (womb transplant) is not a good idea.”

While the Church does not reject children who are born via IVF, it condemns using the procedure to create a human embryo.

“ . . . (T)he Church still sees it as immoral in that it breaks the natural bond between a husband and wife,” said Fr. Tom Lynch, professor of theology at St. Augustine’s Seminary in Toronto and president of Priests for Life Canada. “The Church has always taught that both the unity — the sexual intercourse and coming together of the husband and wife — and the procreative or the reproductive shouldn’t be separated.”

The other issue concerns the donor. Dr. Brannstrom’s research harvests the uterus from a live person rather than from a person who is deceased. This means that the woman who is giving up her uterus is effectively undergoing sterilization, another practice considered to be immoral by the Church.

“The problems come in if it is seen as a sterilization versus a gift,” Lynch said. “The Church hasn’t looked very approvingly on people that will carry a child for another woman as a gift . . . so I doubt that we would see the donation of a uterus as an appropriate gift.”

The Church approves and encourages the practice of organ donation when the surgery poses no risk to the donor. In the case of womb transplants, if the organ came from a deceased donor, it would be acceptable.

“From a cadaver there wouldn’t be those ethical problems,” Lynch explained to the Register. “It would be very problematic from a live donor unless that donor had other problems where the uterus couldn’t be used. (But) because there are continuing difficulties with a live donor — other than someone who is categorically unable to conceive children — I think that it will be seen as problematic and not allowed.”

Should the procedure ever be perfected to the point where a woman could conceive naturally with a womb transplanted from a deceased donor, there probably would be no opposition from the Church.

To date, womb transplants are only intended to be temporary procedures. Women remain on anti-rejection drugs until the woman has carried one or two children, at which time the womb is removed.

He concludes by recalling the warning of Pius XII who said couples must take care not to turn the bedroom into a laboratory.

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