The pioneering medical technique of transplanting a womb from one woman to another in order to have a child is officially coming to the UK and could see the first British baby born as a result of the procedure as early as 2020.
The transplants will take place in an NHS transplant centre but will be funded by Womb Transplant UK, at the cost of around £30,000 per patient. So far, the charity has raised enough funds for three of the proposed 15 transplants.
Women will be chosen from a waiting list of 50 potential recipients – all of whom are aged between 24-38 and were either born without a functioning womb or have had it removed due to an illness such as cancer. Richard Smith, Lead Researcher at Womb Transplant UK, says the charity has been “inundated” with donor applications.
And there’s definitely hope for potential patients – the first successful birth after a womb transplant was achieved in Sweden in 2014. At the time it was reported that the baby boy was premature but doing well. “The baby is fantastic,” said Dr Mats Brannstrom, the gynaecologist who led the research and delivered the infant. "But it is even better to see the joy in the parents and how happy he made them." Since then, five babies have been born in Sweden to mothers with womb transplants.
How does it work?
Firstly, surgeons are now able to perform the procedure using live donors – meaning the patient receiving the womb will likely have been donated it from a family relation, such as her mother or sister. This also equates to a shorter surgery time and reduced health risks, which can include clot formation, deep vein thrombosis and damage to pelvic organs.
The process of transplanting a womb involves both donor and recipient undergoing clinical and psychological tests. Following approval, the transplant will be performed and subsequently, the patient will begin a course of immunosuppressant drugs to ensure the body doesn’t reject the new womb. After six months, if no complications have occurred, the recipient will finally have frozen embryos implanted, created from her eggs and her partner’s sperm.
The gestation period for the baby will be slightly less – around 35-37 weeks – as the womb is delicate and must be delivered via caesarean section. Once the womb is no longer needed it’ll be removed, so the new mother can stop taking the immunosuppressants.
Why the debate?
Many are taking the news as a positive step in the right direction for women who struggle to conceive. Around 6,000 people are born in the UK without a womb, and many others lose theirs due to gynaecological issues such as cancer and severe cases of endometriosis. With a womb transplant, women who were previously unable to experience pregnancy and childbirth can do so if they wish. Furthermore, it opens up the door for trans women to experience childbearing in the future, too.
But others are concerned about the implications of having a womb transplant. At the moment, there are other methods for women experiencing problems with their fertility to have a baby, such as surrogacy (although it's fairly expensive). Some people are worried that womb transplants put too much importance on women carrying the baby themselves – If there are other options available, where the end result is still a baby that’s genetically yours, then what is the need for the procedure? Are we placing too much pressure on women to conform to archaic ideals of womanhood?
What can’t be denied, however, is that this is a huge step forward in the medical world. And really, whether a woman wants to carry her own child is a personal choice – when it’s being funded by a charity, who are we to deny them that? This way, women are given more options to conceive – and, perhaps in the future, men too. And that could never be a bad thing.
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