Wednesday, February 1, 2012
Should surgeons transplant a uterus into a woman who was born without a uterus or has had a hysterectomy and wants to become pregnant? The debate reminds us that efforts to promote family values often neglect the interests of the infertile.
Transplanting life-extending organs, like hearts, livers, lungs and kidneys, has become well-accepted, but ethicists have raised additional questions about transplantation for life-enhancing body parts like faces and hands. It's one thing to assume health risks for the possibility of a longer life, but are the risks of being a transplant recipient justified by improvements in the quality of life?
As surgeons contemplate uterine transplants, the closer scrutiny can make sense--for example, what risks are posed to the child from the drugs that the woman must take to prevent her body's immune system from rejecting the transplanted uterus? (Proponents of uterine transplants, like Dr. Giuseppe Del Priore, observe that kidney and other organ transplant recipients who take the same drugs have become pregnant and given birth without harm to their children.) We should be careful before adopting a new kind of transplantation.
On the other hand, it's troubling to see scholars question uterine transplants on the ground that giving birth to one's own child is not that important an interest. According to an ethics professor, "tons of people have perfectly normal lives without gestating a biological child." Yet, the alternative for the woman lacking a functioning uterus is to have children with the participation of another woman. This may work for many women, but the legal battles that can follow gestational surrogacy illustrate the risks of that alternative, as well as the significant role that gestation plays in forming motherhood.
Many women may be perfectly happy despite losing their ability to carry a pregnancy, but that should not lead us to dimiss the interests of those women who very much want to become mothers after pregnancy. Indeed, when infertility is a consequence of cancer or its treatment, some cancer survivors describe the loss of fertility as causing as much emotional pain as the cancer itself. Our society often discriminates against the infertile out of a tendency to dismiss the impact of infertility on personal well-being.
There are many important reasons why women want to bear their own children. Women may want to have children with their chosen partner and without the involvement of third parties (an interest considered in this article). They may want to benefit from the ties with their children that develop during pregnancy. For these and other reasons, we should be careful not to be overly skeptical of uterine transplants.
[cross-posted at The Faculty Lounge]