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What If Your Grandmother Is Also Your Mother?

JIHEE (MARIE) PARK
<Contributor>

Swedish researchers and doctors have successfully carried out human uterus transplants from mother to daughter. This will no doubt be cause of much talk in ethics that will force us to re-examine the acceptable limits of medical science and its technological applications.

Swedish doctors and researchers are boasting about their recent accomplishment, a decades-long project of transplanting a functioning human uterus from a living donor to a younger recipient without the organ. The weekend-long surgery conducted by a team of 20 doctors in Sweden was a success, with the donors already near full recovery, and recipients, though tired, with uteri. The surgeries have been performed on two sets of donor-recipients, in both cases, from mother to daughter.

Indeed, this recent accomplishment may be considered a breakthrough in medical research. It is an ingenious application of knowledge gained from thousands upon thousands of experiments on animals, through thousands of failures and a few successful attempts. It stands as a testament to our civilization’s mastery of the manipulation of life, now moving beyond basic life-preservation to artificial realizations of concepts previously found in the minds of science-fiction writers.

Mary Shelley would have been blown away were she to learn of what we can now do with medicine. The history of transplantation science has given rise to many a discussion about the definition of human property, human identity, and the value of human life. When organ transplants first emerged, many hailed these advances as a new way forward in curing otherwise fatal conditions, though oppositions began to arise in regards to their defiance against the way nature intended life to be. Take for instance the noise made in light of the first human face transplant in 2005, to Isabelle Dinoire of France. There were supporters who believed that anyone should have the liberty to pursue procedures to improve their standard of life, especially when extensive facial injury leads one to suffer the consequences of society’s discomfort with a grotesquely disfigured face. The Dinoire case raised questions about how to define personal identity, human dignity, and acceptability of science as a cure for the stigmas caused by societal norms.

This human uterine transplant raises even trickier questions, as it also relates to the murky field of reproductive technology. Ever since the dawn of the ‘test-tube baby’, reproductive science has been placed under the glaring spotlight of the media. Despite general opposition to many of the underlying concepts in this area of research, there is a large body of support for the continuation of their activities. Some view reproduction as a right and praise some of the bizarre and interesting procedures these scientists have developed. In-Vitro Fertilization, in its early days, was shunned by the general public as a violation to the sanctity of human life, yet today the procedure is carried out in significant numbers by individuals who cannot conceive without artificial means.

Every day, the lines of what is acceptable and what is not are shifting. Looking at this uterus transplant, we must first examine the safety of the trial. All scientists know that animal experiments yield only limited conclusions. No matter how successful or analogous an experiment, no two species are entirely alike. It is not surprising if results found in one species are not successfully duplicated in another. For these uterus transplants, it has been stated that experiments were successfully conducted on rabbits. This cannot give rise to much confidence for translation to human applications. Before these two Swedish surgeries, there were a few ‘successful’ attempts by various teams in various countries. However, one such attempt failed due to blood clots leading to complications and subsequent removal of the uterus; the results of another attempt are still unreported. It is worth asking whether the Swedish doctors were premature to try the procedure with such confidence before more research was conducted.

One of the biggest issues raised, however, is that now we may need to redefine the fundamentally basic term ‘mother’. The two ladies who received their mothers’ uteri voluntarily enrolled in the experiments. One had her uterus removed due to cervical cancer, and the other was born with Mayer-Rokitansky-Küster-Hauser syndrome, in which a female is born with no uterus. Both women, except for lacking uteri, are otherwise functionally capable of conceiving a child. The odd issue raised is that in each case, the donor is their own mother. If these two recipients go on to conceive (with the help of IVF and caesarean section), then who is the mother? Their babies will be carried in the same womb as they were carried in, a mind-boggling concept that until today we did not have to ponder, at least not in application to real-life situations.

It could be said that these women are giving birth to their own brother or sister, twisting the situation to discussion about the definition of incest. And what of the welfare of the potential child? How can a child born in such circumstances be given protection from psychological and societal effects? These questions are difficult to answer.

Though this Swedish medical sensation may be questioned as being outrageously unorthodox, it is beneficial for society to realize that the realm of science fiction and fantasy is not all that abstract or far away.