Popular Science

Inside the controversial new surgery to transplant human wombs

Pioneering surgeons have made it possible to transplant a human uterus that can bear children, offering hope to millions of women who never thought they could give birth.

On September 4, 2014, in Gothenburg, Sweden, his 36-year-old expectant mother lay on an operating table, suffering from preeclampsia—a pregnancy complication associated with high blood pressure. The baby’s heartbeat showed signs of stress. Normally the woman’s doctors might have taken a wait-and-see approach, treating her with medication and hoping to give the nearly 32-week-old fetus time to grow to full term of about 40 weeks.

But this was no normal gestation. This was the world’s first human nurtured inside a transplanted uterus. He was the product of more than a decade of research. For years, no one had been sure he could exist in that womb—let alone be born. This was not a wait-and-see situation.

As gynecologist and surgeon Liza Johannesson prepped to deliver the child via cesarean section, she was nervous. Not for the baby—she was used to delivering those—but for the uterus. It was 62 years old. A family friend of the patient, who had been born without her own womb, had donated it. The last time it had sustained a life was nearly three decades earlier. “We didn’t know what to expect,” Johannesson says. “We didn’t know if we were going to see [scar tissue] from the transplant surgery or how the new vessels would look, and how they would be positioned.” But as she cut into the woman’s abdomen, her scalpel revealed a uterus that, she says, “looked like it was 20. It reacted the same way it would if it were super young and super healthy. You couldn’t tell it was an old uterus.”

The baby and the mother too both turned out

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