The ethics of uterus transplants to 'transwomen'

The Royal Hospital for Women Foundation in Sydney recently held a fundraising event which featured doctors from the Hospital speaking of a successful uterine transplant to a woman they had performed in January 2023.

When asked whether they would transplant a uterus to a transwoman (a biological man) to allow her to carry a child, they did not rule it out. Uterine transplants to biological men are another complex ethical issue raised in the context of reproductive technologies.

Let’s start with the easiest case, which is the one in the Royal Hospital’s example. A young woman loses her uterus from complications of childbirth. Her mother is the uterine donor. The mother’s motivation is her love and compassion for her daughter and the donation is altruistic and no money, profit or commercialism is involved. Provided all other criteria for an ethical organ donation and transplant are fulfilled – for example, acceptable risk, informed consent from all involved, no coercion, and so on – I believe most people would agree this intervention is ethical and legal.

Whether that is also true for transwomen seeking a uterine transplant is not clear, however, because it does not fall within the same parameters. The website of the Royal Hospital for Women Foundation regarding its involvement in reproductive technologies, in general, summarises that well: “Help make the impossible possible”. This possibility of a uterus transplant to a biological man raises many complex ethical issues, including when is it unethical to use medical technologies to achieve what is impossible in Nature. That is an increasingly relevant and important question in bioethics.

My first thought on hearing of this event was a flashback memory to 1988 and the 57th Annual Couchiching Conference, “Biological Engineering: Blessing or Curse?”, held over a residential weekend at Geneva Park, Ontario, Canada. I was the featured speaker and my keynote address was titled “Biotechnology: Doing the Unthinkable” and my closing remarks “Going to Peace on Nature”.

It was a warm summer afternoon and I was the first speaker after Sunday lunch, so I anticipated a sleepy audience. I decided to wake them up by addressing the question, “Should men be helped to become pregnant?”. Unknown to me there was a journalist in the audience. On Monday morning, a Canadian newspaper (from memory the Ottawa Citizen) had a short front-page article, “Ethicist says men could have babies.”

That day when I arrived at my office at McGill University in Montreal, I received several phone calls from men saying they were interested in knowing whom they could contact to explore this possibility. I asked one of them, a heterosexual married man with five children, why he wanted to do this. He replied, “Because I’ve always envied my wife being able to carry our child and I’d like to have that experience.” Most women who contacted me said the men who wanted to become pregnant must be mad to want to take on that burden. We know that hypothetical decision making, which it was at the time, can be very different from facing the real situation, which is now our reality.

So let’s have a look at the ethics of this.

The best interests of the child

First, in all reproductive technology decision-making, we must place the child and their rights and “best interests” at the centre of the decision-making and they must take priority. This often does not happen because the fertility industry, which is predicted to generate over US$46 billion revenue annually by 2030, cannot market to a yet-to-be-conceived child, but only to the adults who want a child. This results in the would-be-parents’ interests being central and the future child’s interests, if considered at all, secondary at best.

We sometimes operationalise the requirement of placing the future child at the centre of the decision-making through a doctrine called “anticipated consent”. If the child were here now is it reasonably certain they would consent to their coming into existence in this way? If that is not reasonably certain, ethically the procedure should not be undertaken.

The doctrine of the child’s anticipated consent is important. My experience with Australians born from anonymous sperm donation when that was still legal was that they would not have consented. One of them, Joanna Rose (now Dr Rose) was giving evidence to an official enquiry (I can’t recall whether it was a parliamentary committee or another official enquiry).

An enquiry member – a man - confronted her aggressively saying, “I don’t know what you are complaining about, if it hadn’t been for that anonymous donation you wouldn’t be here causing a fuss.” My heart sank. How could one reply to that? She left a long pause then said, “If I were the outcome of rape, I’d be glad to be alive, but that doesn’t mean I approve of rape.” Brilliant.

Repairing nature

We can also make a distinction, which not everyone agrees helps us ethically, between using medical technology to repair nature when it fails – as in the case of the young Sydney woman – with using it to do what is impossible in Nature, a biological man being pregnant. The former is much more likely to be ethical than the latter. This could allow us to justify, ethically, helping biological women with a uterine transplant, but not biological men, without being accused of wrongful discrimination.

Just because a doctor carries out a procedure does not mean that it is necessarily medical treatment. My contention is that uterine transplantation is medical treatment for a biological woman with a defective uterus, but not for a biological man. We are more likely to have claims or even rights to necessary medical treatments, than to non-therapeutic interventions.

If the uterine recipient were a biological man, more ethical issues are raised. For instance, if “she” were a transwoman, would “her” sperm be used to fertilise donor ova? If so, she would be both the mother and the father of the child. The law in many jurisdictions defines the mother of a child as the woman who gives birth to it. This is the reason that in some jurisdictions surrogate motherhood was legislated as an exception to this presumption.

Here is another example of an ethical issue: what if the uterus donor were a transgender man (a biological women) having gender realignment/transition surgery and asks that “her” uterus be donated to a transgender woman?

Currently, an alternative possibility for gestating human babies is on the horizon. Exogenesis, the use of artificial uteruses, so no human would be involved in gestating the child. This has already been achieved in the laboratory with lambs. As the renowned Australian scientist Alan Trounson said to me when Dolly the cloned sheep‘s existence was announced, “What we can do in one mammal we can do in other mammals. The crossover time from animals to humans is usually around seven years.” The relevant and urgent ethical question is always not “Can we?”, but “Should we?” implement all the possibilities new science opens up?



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The bigger picture

Finally, in what larger context do we need to view uterus transplants to biological men?

We can view human societies as having two main spheres of operation, nature and culture, which need to be in balance to have a well-functioning society. Traditionally nature belonged to women, because they could perform the miracle of giving birth, and culture belonged to men.

The birth of the feminist movement in the 1960s resulted in women moving into the culture sphere. This upset the balance between culture and nature. Reproductive technologies, which initially were largely developed and provided to women by men, allowed men to move into the nature sphere and take some control of it, realigning that balance. At the time, many feminists saw reproductive technologies as a new threat of control of women by men and protested against the use of these technologies.

I believe we have much to learn from indigenous culture, including in relation to ethical decision-making. As an aside, I am hoping that the indigenous Voice to Parliament will help us to have more and easier access to this source of wisdom. An ancient Australian Aboriginal story is pertinent here. It echoes and give weight to the feminist perception that reproductive technology involves men taking over a power that belonged only to women -- namely the power to conceive and give birth to a baby.

Aboriginal women, the custodians of “secret women’s business” relating to pregnancy and childbirth, called a corroboree (meeting), because they had learnt that their men had discovered the cave where the secret knowledge was hidden and were going to steal it. They decided, however, not to stop them, because they knew if they did, there would be no peace in the mob (community). It is noteworthy that the women allowed the men to steal the knowledge, implying they could have stopped them, and they took that decision in the interests of the mob, that is, for the “common good”.

We have much to learn from many sources, if we are to act wisely and ethically in deciding about the use or otherwise of new reproductive technologies.


Margaret Somerville is Professor of Bioethics in the School of Medicine at the University of Notre Dame Australia.

Showing 5 reactions

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  • M. Somerville
    commented 2024-03-02 21:54:24 +1100
    Thanks for your comment Joanne and it’s very important to listen to our feelings in situations that raise ethical issues. There’s a saying that “we ignore our feelings at our ethical peril “. What I call “examined emotions” are an important way of “human knowing” in ethics. That said, it doesn’t mean our emotional response is always an accurate assessment of the ethics which should apply.
    The reason I concluded a post-menopausal woman donating her uterus to her daughter was ethical included the following considerations:
    · Having a uterus is a natural state for a woman, so this transplant is repairing Nature when it fails, not doing something impossible in Nature (except for the transplant procedure itself).

    · Like other transplants it is valid medical treatment and not prima facie unethical.

    · We accept close family members donating paired organs such as the kidney and parts of renewable organs such as the liver and this uterus transplant donation is no different.

    · We should consider whether approving of it has harmful impact on the “common good”, including that vulnerable women might be coerced into donating their uterus. In other words, approving the woman daughter donation as ethical could make unethical donations more likely to occur.

    · Words matter in deciding whether something is ethical. Your characterisation of the uterus being the one in which the daughter was gestated made me question my decision that the donation was ethical. It is not incest, that requires sexual intercourse and it does not run the risk of genetic disease as incest does. It probably requires IVF so raises the ethical issues which apply to that, but that’s not in my view a reason for designating the uterus transplant as unethical.
  • Joanne H.
    commented 2024-03-01 07:12:04 +1100
    I feel the need to comment on the first hypothetical scenario, of a woman receiving the uterine transplant from her own mother. I was surprised to read the conclusion at the end of the paragraph, that probably most people would consider that scenario ethical. To me, it seems extremely unsettling, that a woman would receive the womb in which she herself had gestated! It feels incestuous and like breaking some kind of taboo, something which shall not be broken. I’m sorry I haven’t formulated more rational arguments, other than expressing my initial reaction to that scenario. It just doesn’t feel right.
  • u1145802
    followed this page 2024-02-04 09:09:07 +1100
  • Tony and Smurthwaite
    commented 2023-08-01 18:41:08 +1000
    Hi Margaret a agree to disagree with this article. The stark difference between a male and a female and the ability to carry and give birth to a baby is much more than the presence or absence of a uterus. Throughout pregnancy there is an interactive process between mother and child that no man can possibly replicate. This not only involves her gynaecology, but her brain, her digestive system, her heart and kidneys all required for ensuring an effective outcome.
    The very idea that to transplant a woman’s uterus into a male body, to enable him to give birth is an abomination. Any crime against nature will be repaid a hundred fold.
    He not only lacks the gynaecological anatomical features of a woman but also the physiological processes required to produce a baby.
    This confrontational belief that a man can with medical intervention become a woman who can also carry a baby, or vice versa, due wholly to an ideological concept alone, needs to be stopped in its tracks.
    Joan A
  • James Dougall