Tag Archives: womb

The womb and reproductive technologies

Medical advances have led to the possibility of a uterus transplant, but is it ethical ?

Jennifer Kimball

Jennifer Kimball

Classical and theological discourse has always held a unique and deeply significant respect for the womb. Indeed, it’s the place where the human person first experiences communion with another, where the child is nourished and grows under the care of maternal union, where the developing person is most vulnerable and depends upon another in all things.

There’s a cultural norm in Catholic morality which implies a regard for the womb, but this norm has yet to be fully articulated in Church teaching. Its absence can be understood when looking at the Church’s early understanding of human embryology. In the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas thought that human life began only from the man’s sperm, his “seed.” The woman’s participation in conception was thought to be passive. It’s interesting to note, however, that the woman’s “seed” is mentioned much earlier (Gen 3:15).

The womb, or uterus, is part of the female reproductive system, yet outside of the generative capacity of the system itself. The womb doesn’t participate in conception, but it’s where a new life grows and develops.

By design, the womb doesn’t serve the physical integrity of the woman, such as the kidney or liver, but exists to serve another — actually drawing, to a small degree, from the physical good of the woman, demanding her gift of self.

Given that the womb exists for another and bears a deeper relational significance not yet fully articulated by the Church, Catholic bioethicists may need to address future issues such as womb donation and the gestation of embryos in artificial/mechanical wombs. In delving into these questions, we contribute significantly to current debates such as early embryonic transplants to save the life of the fetus. Are artificial wombs intrinsically wrong? Suppose a pregnant woman needs radiation therapy to prevent her death from cancer (and the unborn baby’s death as well). Would it be immoral to move the unborn child from the mother’s womb to an artificial uterus to protect its life?

In 2006, the review board for New York’s Downtown Hospital granted approval for Dr. Giuseppe Del Priore to perform the United States’ first human uterus transplant. The first known attempt was performed in Saudi Arabia in 2000. It was removed after 99 days due to clotting of the blood, even after two successful menstrual cycles. Upon hearing of the N.Y. board’s approval, barren women were lining up to receive a new uterus. With many cases of endometriosis and scarring of the uterus, conception can still occur in the fallopian tubes and travel the four to six days to the uterus. The problem with these illnesses, however, is not necessarily the lack of conception, but that the womb becomes inhospitable to the embryo, causing a failed attachment and the resultant death of the embryo. Given that medicine has sought a nonconventional therapy in the form of transplants, we must ask if it’s ethical.

The Church teaches that “ethically, not all organs can be donated. The brain and the gonads may not be transplanted because they ensure the personal and procreative identity respectively. These are organs which embody the characteristic uniqueness of the person, which medicine is bound to protect” (Pontifical Council for Pastoral Assistance, Charter for Health Care Workers, 1995, #88).

The uterus, though part of the reproductive system, does not comprise generational or personal identity of the donor such as with the ovaries, testes or brain. This may suggest that to donate this organ for the sake of another’s conceived children may be licit in Church teaching, though the need for such a transplant may only be realized as a result of advances in reproductive medicine and technology.

With a uteral transplant, a woman’s uterus is removed and then placed in another woman’s body in the hope that the woman and her husband may conceive a child. In formulating an ethical regard for transferring a heterologous (foreign) uterus into the body of another woman, will we need to consider marital or sexual ethics?

A child gestating in the donated womb within its biological mother is not foreign to the father nor is it generated without his participation. It also seems reasonable to say that the transplantation of the uterus, though part of the reproductive system, is not a sexual act in any fashion. It’s a medical procedure that provides an actual good for both the fulfillment of the marriage and the gestation of their children.

A woman’s becoming pregnant after such a transfer remains to be established as a result of the natural marital union. The gestation of the couple’s child, however, comes about through the gift of another though it remains personal to the mother and to her body.

I believe that, as technology progresses, the Church may rule that it’s permissible to transplant a womb in order to save another — and to gestate and nurture a human life.

Jennifer Kimball is executive director of the Culture of Life Foundation, a non-profit policy think tank based in Washington, D.C. She earned a bachelor’s degree and a Licentiate in Bioethics from the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum School of Bioethics in Rome.

Laws embrace windows on the womb

More abortion-minded women are being given the option to see their child via ultrasound . . .

Dorinda Bordlee

Science tells us when life begins. The real question is when love begins. For many abortion-minded women, love began when they had the opportunity to see their unborn child on an ultrasound screen.

The good news is that the opportunities to open this window on the womb are increasing with more and more state laws requiring ultrasounds before an abortion can be performed.

Testimony given by women in legislative hearings confirms that ultrasound images help a woman in an unexpected pregnancy to realize she’s not alone in this seeming crisis — that it’s not all about her, and that there’s another person right there with her in the most profound and physical way.

That person is her unborn child, who is joined by many other people such as those who operate pro-life pregnancy care centers that provide free hands-on resources like ultrasound and medical services, parenting and marriage counseling, diapers and formula, and even food for the new mom’s pantry before and after her baby’s birth.

The Knights of Columbus have taken the lead in getting ultrasound machines donated to pro-life pregnancy centers. This ultrasound donation outreach, together with the legislative efforts (promoted by my public-interest law firm Bioethics Defense Fund) is a powerful tool for building a culture of life. It gives each of us in the pro-life movement the opportunity to do what Supreme Knight Carl Anderson speaks of as “living as Christ lives, [as] we reveal to others who they are: beings made by love, and for love.”

It’s true that laws cannot mandate love. But by legally requiring that an ultrasound be performed before abortion with the express option for the woman to view the screen, this type of legislation can indeed create an environment for the light of love to overcome the darkness of fear. The ultrasound option allows an abortion-minded woman the freedom to replace her natural tendency to self-absorption with the ultimate opportunity for self-giving. It gives her a chance to realize that she can be a hero for one of the least amongst us.

This positive approach to building a culture of life is garnering national secular attention. A recent Washington Post opinion column was entitled “Women Should be Informed Before They Abort.” In the piece, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Kathleen Parker describes herself as “both pro-life and pro-choice.” Yet she writes that ultrasound legislation is a worthy approach which recognizes that “abortion truthfully presented would eliminate itself or vastly reduce its numbers.”

The column features a Louisiana law, drafted by Bioethics Defense Fund, that gives every woman seeking abortion two chances to choose life:

1. At least 24 hours before an abortion, the abortion provider must provide the woman with a list of places that offer free ultrasound services. This list will be compiled by the state’s Department of Health and will include pro-life pregnancy centers that offer free ultrasound.

2. If the woman returns for an abortion after a 24-hour reflection period, the abortion provider must perform an ultrasound at least two hours before the abortion to determine fetal viability and issues related to the woman’s health. At that ultrasound, the woman must be read a script that gives her three options: The option to view the ultrasound screen, the option to hear an explanation of the images, and the option to get a print-out of her unborn child’s image.

These options are offered by a script that the ultrasound technician must read to the woman in the examination room prior to the beginning of the ultrasound examination. The BDF model legislation includes the text of the script so that the abortionist cannot negatively influence the woman by saying things such as, “You don’t want to see this, do you?”

Because the ultrasound provisions are added to a currently existing “Woman’s Right to Know” law, the abortionist will be subject to civil and criminal penalties if the woman is denied these options.

Laws requiring ultrasound before abortion give women the gift of sight. What they see is the beauty of their unborn child — the kind of beauty referred to by Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky when he wrote his famous phrase, “Beauty will save the world.” In this case, beauty can save a life.

Dorinda C. Bordlee is senior counsel of Bioethics Defense Fund, a non-profit pro-life legal organization with the mission to advocate for the dignity of human life through litigation, legislation and public education. An abridged version of this article appeared in the September 2010 issue of Legatus Magazine.