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Doctors have been transplanting vital organs like livers, kidneys and hearts for decades. And in recent years, they've started transplanting other body parts like faces, legs and hands. And now, at least one hospital in this country has started performing uterus transplants in the hopes of helping women have babies. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein reports.
ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Lindsey McFarland was born without a uterus. And even though she and her husband, Blake, have created a big, happy family by adopting three boys, she always dreamed of being pregnant and giving birth to a baby.
LINDSEY MCFARLAND: Getting to feel the baby move and getting to watch your baby grow through sonograms and finding out the gender and then the birth and everything, you know, morning sickness, all of that. I wanted to experience all of that.
STEIN: So McFarland and her husband were thrilled when the Cleveland Clinic announced plans to try doing womb transplants for women who were born without uteruses or lost theirs to disease. She volunteered right away.
MCFARLAND: We just wanted that experience. We wanted that connection.
STEIN: McFarland, who's 26 and lives in Lubbock, Texas, underwent a 10-hour operation in February to become the first - and so far only - woman to get a womb transplant in the United States. Everything went so well McFarland and her doctors held a news conference about a week later to celebrate.
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I'd like you to join me in welcoming into the room Lindsey and Blake.
MCFARLAND: We were very much thinking to the future.
STEIN: McFarland planned to use embryos she and her husband had created through IVF before the operation.
MCFARLAND: You start thinking - oh, you know, like, which one of these little embryos would they implant first, you know? And well, which one is actually going to take in a pregnancy? And is it going to be a boy? Is it going to be girl? - and things like that.
STEIN: But just hours after the news conference, McFarland started bleeding. Doctors discovered she had an infection, a bad yeast infection, that had destroyed the transplanted uterus. Doctors rushed her into surgery to remove it and then had to perform a third surgery when the infection threatened one of her legs.
MCFARLAND: We both just cried. And - it's - some days are harder than others.
STEIN: McFarland's experience is the kind of thing that's raising concerns about womb transplants. Michelle Goodwin is a bioethicist at the University of California, Irvine. She questions doing risky operations to transplant something people don't need to survive.
MICHELLE GOODWIN: It's highly risky. And it's a true gamble. And I don't think you can find people more vulnerable than those who wish to become parents and can't.
STEIN: There are risks from the operations and risks from the powerful drugs needed to prevent rejection - and not only for the women getting the transplants.
GOODWIN: We don't know yet what the potential risks of this cocktail of medications will mean for fetal development.
STEIN: And some worry the operations perpetuate stereotypes about motherhood. Lisa Campo-Engelstein is a bioethicist at Albany medical College.
LISA CAMPO-ENGELSTEIN: It further reinforces this idea that to be a, quote, unquote, "real woman" especially that you need to have a genetically related child that you gestate yourself.
STEIN: When there are other options such as adoption or using a surrogate mother, doctors conducting the transplants defend what they're doing. Rebecca Flyckt is an infertility specialist at the Cleveland Clinic. She said surgeons in Sweden showed that transplants can work and be done safely. They've done nine womb transplants for women who have given to birth to at least five babies so far. And they all seem fine so far.
REBECCA FLYCKT: I think that there will be a small group of women who are interested in doing this procedure despite the fact that we know that there are some risks. And I think, with enough counseling, we can ensure that they're making a pretty informed choice about this.
STEIN: The plan is to only keep the uterus in place until the women have tried having babies once or twice then remove it so they can stop taking the anti-rejection drugs. For her part, Lindsey McFarland has no regrets.
MCFARLAND: For something that was so important to me, I went for it. And so I can never say I didn't try. Like, I can say I tried. And I think that's so important.
STEIN: She hopes what doctors learned from her experience will help the next woman who tries. The Cleveland Clinic is planning at least nine more transplants as part of a study. And hospitals in Massachusetts, Texas and Nebraska are planning to try womb transplants, too. Rob Stein, NPR News.
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