In August, 2011, a young Turkish woman named Derya Sert caused a medical sensation when she received a transplanted womb from a deceased donor. It was the world’s first successful uterine transplant, as an earlier procedure carried out in 2000 in Saudi Arabia had failed after 99 days due to heavy clotting. Eighteen months on from that groundbreaking Turkish transplant, the medical sensation has become a fully-fledged “medical miracle”, with the news that Derya is now pregnant.
Following a successful in-vitro fertilization carried out at Akdeniz University Hospital in Turkey, 22 year-old Derya is said to be two weeks pregnant, and according to her doctor, Mustafa Unal, “She is doing just fine at the moment.” If all goes according to plan, the baby will be delivered by C-section, after which the womb will be removed to avoid any possible complications.
The news has been met with mixed responses, with some in the medical profession claiming that the transplant’s potential risks to patient and baby are not justified. British expert Lord Winston claims, for instance, that there could be fatal complications, and that the baby is at risk of birth defects due to immuno-suppressive drugs and the likelihood of a preterm delivery.
There are ethical questions too, as the complex procedure is not to address any life-threatening situation, and women incapable of child-bearing usually have the option of adoption or surrogacy.
None of this is likely to matter to the many thousands of women who will see Derya’s breakthrough as offering real hope for a child of their own. Like almost one in every 5000 women around the world, Derya was born without a uterus, and many more have had the organ removed due to cancer or other medical issues.
If the Turkish procedure continues on its successful path, other doctors are likely to be offering a similar opportunity in the near future. At a 2011 conference attended by many of the world’s top transplant experts, the surgeon who performed Derya’s operation, Professor Omer Oskan, announced that at least three more women are awaiting the same procedure should Derya’s baby be carried to term. The event was organized by Richard Smith, a consultant at London’s Imperial College, who claims that his own tests on rabbits suggest that he will be able to approach British ethics committees within a year or two for permission to conduct human transplants.
Tests have also been conducted in Sweden, where last September the first mother-to-daughter womb transplant operation was performed.
Meanwhile, Derya’s doctors are taking no chances. Even though she began menstruating shortly after the womb was implanted, the medical team waited 18 months after the operation before going ahead with the fertilization treatment. Since then, the young mother-to-be has been carefully monitored for the sake of her own health and that of the baby, and also for the sake of any subsequent transplants.
The implications of this procedure are staggering. What, for instance, might it offer to transgender females in the years ahead? Although there are definite medical risks to be weighed up, the alternatives – adoption or surrogacy – are fraught with legal difficulties, and in many cases they don’t offer an easy solution either. It seems certain that should Derya have a healthy baby, there will be lengthy queues of women who are keen to accept the risks and have a similar operation, with the hope that they can carry their own child, with their own DNA, in their own body.