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Uterus transplant raises host of ethical questions

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
September 19th, 2012
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Swedish doctors have now successfully transplanted a uterus from mother to daughter. This raises hopes for women who have lost their reproductive organs to illness, but raises a host of thorny ethical issues.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - "But I've been around long enough to see some stuff we never imagined become sort of standard," Dr. James Goldfarb, director of the University Hospitals Fertility Center in Cleveland says. Goldfarb was the first to put an embryo in the womb of a gestational carrier in 1986.

Goldfarb points out that uterine transplants are illegal in some states and frowned upon in some cultures.

"It's also stressful for the biological parents to have someone else carrying their baby," he added. "I think that would be the advantage to the procedure. But clearly there are disadvantages, too."

In addition to the painful surgery for the uterus donor and recipient, there follows a lifetime of anti-rejection drugs. Above all else, there is no guarantee that the transplanted uterus will be receptive to embryos.

If it is, however, the procedure would mean any woman of any age could get pregnant.

"Today, the one woman who can't get pregnant is the woman with no functioning ovary and no uterus. But if this technique works, that woman could get pregnant with a transplanted uterus and egg donation," Goldfarb said.

According to bioethicist at NYU Langone Medical Center Art Caplan, the transplant poses many new ethical and moral questions.

"There's a lot going on in reproductive technology, but very little attention being paid by policy makers. Questions about who can use these techniques, who can donate a uterus, are all pretty much left to the marketplace," Caplan said.

Other nations, such as the United Kingdom are carefully weighing the ethics of the latest advances, including the possibility of engineering embryos from three parents to foil genetic disease.

Called mitochondrial replacement, the procedure swaps parts of one woman's egg with those from a donor egg, thwarting diseases caused by defects in the cell's power supplier, the mitochondria.

"We find ourselves in [unchartered] territory, balancing the desire to help families have healthy children with the possible impact on the children themselves and wider society," Lisa Jardine, chair of the U.K.'s Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority said in a statement.

Caplan says the procedure "crosses the line from infertility treatments to designer babies."

"It's controversial because it doesn't involve changing genes in your own body, but the genes passed onto the next generation," Caplan says, explaining how the process "opens the door" to eugenics. "At this point it's purely to prevent disease, but it's a baby step in that direction."

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