Groundbreaking Operation Raises Fertility Hopes, Ethical Concerns

July 7, 2008 - 7:02 PM

London (CNSNews.com) - A 30-year-old Arizona woman has become the first person to have her menopause reversed, following a successful graft of ovary tissue -- a procedure masterminded by British and US scientists that promises both exciting possibilities and serious ethical fears.

Margaret Lloyd-Hart, who entered premature menopause after having her second ovary removed for medical reasons and then frozen, had tissue from her own ovary transplanted at a New York hospital earlier this year. (The professional dancer's first ovary was removed at 17, because of a cyst.)

Stimulation with hormones has resulted in the restored ovary producing an egg, although normal ovulation has yet to begin.

An American Society for Reproductive Medicine meeting in Toronto Thursday learned of the development from Professor Roger Gosden of the University of Leeds. He worked with Dr. Kutluk Oktay of the New York Methodist Hospital, who actually performed the four-hour procedure.

The unprecedented restoration of fertility in a menopausal patient could revolutionize reproduction. As frozen ovaries don't deteriorate, and could probably be safely stored for years, women could delay the onset of menopause, and have children well into late middle age.

This could prompt some women to put off motherhood until their careers are established, as long as they are prepared to undergo otherwise unnecessary surgery, twice.

A statement on the New York Methodist Hospital website quotes Dr. Oktay as saying the development will "enable patients to prolong their reproductive life span, as banked ovarian tissue does not 'age.'"

Ovaries could be removed, for example, from cancer patients awaiting invasive therapy, and then later returned for subsequent conception and childbirth. Ovary grafts could supplant the currently popular hormone replacement therapy, helping women to remain active longer.

And in patients like Lloyd-Hart, sterility caused by premature menopause could be treated and overcome.

But while she had tissue from her own removed ovary grafted into her body, the development also raises the prospect of transplants of donated tissue, from accident victims, perhaps - or from aborted babies.

It has been noted that the ovaries of preborn babies contain large quantities of eggs. As women age, the number diminishes. In the future, aborted babies could thus be seen as the best source of donations.

This is cause for deep concern among pro-life campaigners, like Adam Atkinson of the Christian Action Research and Education (CARE) in London.

"To cause death [by abortion] and profit from death is profoundly wrong, period," he told CNSNews.com Thursday.

He did not dismiss the ovarian graft breakthrough in itself, saying it clearly offered "great advantages for female reproduction" and was based on "seemingly excellent" research.

"The problem comes when we start to talk about tissue donation, and the origin of the tissue. We believe in the sanctity of each God-given life. Each deserves specific protection measures. This may be an explicitly Christian perspective, but it's shared by a lot of people in this country of all faiths and none - life begins at conception."

Gosden is quoted Thursday as saying he is keen to prevent unethical future applications of the work he has pioneered, or possible commercial exploitation.

But Atkinson said this wasn't enough. Even if there are strict guidelines, he said, they could be flouted.

Gosden plans to relocate to Canada soon, citing a backlash of public opinion in Britain against the kind of research he has been engaged in.

Last June, the British government banned the cloning of human embryos to develop tissue for transplants. Five years ago the House of Commons outlawed the possible use of fetal ovaries in fertility treatment.

Conservative lawmakers called "totally repugnant" the idea of a child robbed of the right to life being "plundered" to facilitate conception elsewhere.

Gosden at the time was quoted as saying that while he was aware of "the ethical minefields" in his area, "the episode provided an opportunity for anti-scientific forces to vent their wrath on those who struggle for human progress."

"We're not deliberately anti-science," Atkinson told CNSNews.com when asked about the accusation. "We have many scientists among our supporters and will soon have one on our staff."

"We're all in this together," he said. "These are decisions - moral and ethical - that ethicists and scientists and others with opinions should work out together.

"We're all engaged in the struggle for human progress."