British scientists have performed successful womb transplants in two rabbits, using a new technique they say they can apply to humans within two years.

A womb transplant was tried on a human in 2000, but the organ had to be removed after three months because of problems with its blood supply. But now surgeon Richard Smith (that's not him above) has developed a "vascular patch technique" that connects major blood vessels like the aorta. His team performed transplants in five rabbits, two of which lived for 10 months after the procedure. Examinations after the rabbits died showed the transplants were successful.

Smith said the next step is to impregnate rabbits to see how the transplanted womb handles pregnancy. Then he will try the procedure on bigger animals — if he can get the money. He's been denied grants from several medical organizations, perhaps because of questions about the usefulness of his procedure. A transplant could allow a woman to carry a child if she was born without a womb, or if the organ was damaged by cancer or another disease. But she would probably need IVF, as the transplant would raise the risk of ectopic pregnancy if she conceived naturally. And she would need to deliver by C-section because the transplanted womb would likely not hold up in labor. And of course, the transplant itself would carry risks — the womb would only be left in long enough for the woman to have a child, but during that period she would need to take immunosuppressant drugs. The whole procedure would be expensive and potentially dangerous, and Smith says, "There's a lot of dismissal in the profession in terms of this being a step too far in terms of fertility management."

It's worthwhile to ask what "a step too far" really is. Some people object to IVF because of its expense or because of the risk of multiple births. Others see ethical problems with surrogacy, finding it distasteful to pay a woman to be pregnant. But both techniques have gained fairly wide acceptance, and it's possible that womb transplants would too. Smith says, "for a woman who's desperate for a baby, this is incredibly important." His choice of the word "desperate" is a little questionable, but the popularity of IVF does show that many women — and men — who have trouble conceiving still want to have biological children. Womb transplants would extend this opportunity to a group of women who don't currently have it. While some opponents of fertility treatment advocate adoption for such women, that's far from a cheap or easy process either. If Smith's research succeeds, it will give women without wombs the same options as women with them — which seems, on balance, like a good thing.

Womb Transplants 'A Step Closer' [BBC]
Womb Transplants 'On The Way In Two Years' [Daily Mail]
British Scientists Step Closer To Womb Transplants [Guardian]