WASHIGNTON — The first successful birth to a woman who had undergone a womb transplant highlights both opportunities resulting from new technology and the need for caution, said a Catholic bioethics expert.
“The womb can be recognized as an organ that serves a particular function,” explained Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk, director of education for the National Catholic Bioethics Center.
He told CNA on Oct. 10 that the transplantation of a healthy womb to a woman who lacks a womb because of birth defects or disease can be licit and “would be analogous to a situation where a kidney fails to function” and a donor provides a healthy organ to someone in need.
Women can lose function of wombs after cancer, medical treatments or due to certain birth defects.
Recently, a Swedish woman gave birth to a baby boy after receiving a transplanted womb donated by a post-menopausal friend in her 60s. This is the first successful womb transplant to be coupled with a pregnancy, after two attempts by other medical teams failed to lead to successful pregnancies.
“Our success is based on more than 10 years of intensive animal research and surgical training by our team and opens up the possibility of treating many young females worldwide who suffer from uterine infertility,” said professor Mats Brannstrom, leader of the transplant team, to the BBC.
Father Pacholczyk explained that while the number of couples who could benefit from this therapy “is relatively small,” the transplant itself opens up the possibility for a new morally acceptable therapy.
Transplanting the uterus alone could be morally acceptable, he said, as long as the transplant of ovaries and sex cells were not also done, respecting the uniqneness of each person’s genetic information.
The priest also noted that, in the recent case, the woman — whose ovaries were still functioning — and her husband had used in vitro fertilization (IVF) to create 11 embryos, implanting one, which resulted in a successful pregnancy and birth. The use of in vitro fertilization violates Catholic teaching, because it separates the creation of life from the marital act, he explained.
For such a womb transplant to be completely licit, Father Pacholczyk said, IVF could not be used, and children would need to be conceived naturally “through the marital act.”
Father Pacholczyk also pointed to ethical concerns surrounding potential donors for the therapy.
In this case, he noted, “the uterus was obtained from a post-menopausal woman” whose “reproductive life was behind her.”
“By donating the uterus she is not compromising her reproductive function nor is she compromising any significant hormonal function,” he explained, saying that uteri from cadavers and from post-menopausal women could be used for transplant.
What would not be morally acceptable, he noted, is for a pre-menopausal woman to donate a uterus “with a contraceptive intention” or in a way that would prevent her from being able to bear life while she is still biologically capable of doing so.