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A University of Oslo professor has been met with widespread anger online after claiming using brain-dead women to carry an unborn child to term – something she calls “whole body gestational donation” or WBGD – is an idea that “deserves serious consideration”.
Anna Smajdor’s study, which was published in the medical journal Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics in November last year, argues that “we already know that pregnancies can be successfully carried to term in brain dead women” and therefore “there is no obvious medical reason why initiating such pregnancies would not be possible”.
She continues: “Since we are happy to accept that organ donors are dead enough to donate, we should have no objections to WBGD on these grounds. WBGD donors are as dead as other donors – no more, no less.
“Since we are happy to prolong the somatic survival of already pregnant brain-dead women, to initiate pregnancy among eligible brain-dead donors should not trouble us unduly.
“Of course, this proposal may seem shocking to some people. Nevertheless, as I have shown, if we accept that our current approach to organ donation and reproductive medicine are sound, WBGD donation seems to follow relatively smoothly from procedures that we are already undertaking separately.”
According to the NHS, brain death occurs when the brain stem at the lower part of the organ – which is connected to the spinal cord and our central nervous system - is damaged, affecting the regulation of common automatic functions such as breathing, swallowing and our own heartbeat.
It can be caused by health issues such as a brain haemorrhage or tumour, a stroke, or a heart attack.
Someone who is brain dead is confirmed as dead under UK law, as they cannot recover from their injuries and are unable to breathe without artificial life support.
This is different from someone being in a vegetative state, where an individual is awake and has a functioning brain stem, but displays no signs of awareness. It’s also possible for a person to recover from this state.
Acknowledging the controversial nature of the subject matter, Smajdor notes: “The prospect of the unconscious woman’s body, filled and used by others as a vessel, is a vivid illustration of just what feminists have fought against for many years.”
However, she also claims such concerns could be “mitigated” if brain dead males could be subject to WBGD as well – a prospect which she said could “appease some feminists” who see it as objectification.
How male gestation would work exactly isn’t made explicitly clear in her November paper.
Finally, Smajdor concludes by saying if WBGD is considered to be “clearly outrageous”, then there are “uncomfortable questions to answer” around organ donation within the context of deceased individuals.
“On the other hand, if WBGD is viewed as a straightforward means of facilitating safer reproduction, and avoiding the moral problems of surrogacy, we should be ready to embrace it as a logical and beneficial extension of activities that we already treat as being morally unproblematic,” she writes.
All of this has sparked considerable outrage from individuals online, who have branded the idea as “disgusting”:
\u201cThis suggestion is disgusting on its face, but it\u2019s interesting that even those who propose it acknowledge that those they would use as incubators would have needed to consent to organ donation, a right denied to many forced to carry while still alive. https://t.co/vBxCfmIrd2\u201d
— feminist next door (@feminist next door)
\u201cTwo topics I keep seeing - "brain dead women can be used as surrogates" and "prisoners can exchange organs for less prison time" \n\nJust gonna lump those two together, for screaming purposes\u201d
\u201cToday, I saw a headline in the UK about whether women who are \u201cbrain dead\u201d could have their bodies used to grow babies in their bodies as surrogates without their consent. A second about prisoners in the US potentially being able to reduce their sentence by donating organs\u2026\u201d
\u201cOnly in a woman-hating society, would using brain dead women as living wombs be up for discussion. This is how it starts, how it ends is legislators making this law. https://t.co/jJzpvpKwaw\u201d
— Dr Charlotte Proudman (@Dr Charlotte Proudman)
\u201cI guess it needs to be said now\u2014 DO NOT USE BRAIN DEAD PEOPLE WITH UTERI AS SURROGATES.\u201d
\u201cIn today\u2019s version of hell we\u2019re living in, I\u2019ve read about two batshit crazy proposals - \n\n1. prisoners released early in exchange for organ donation & \n2. brain dead women to be surrogates\n\nThis is some utilitarian effective altruism level nonsense. Enough twitter for today.\u201d
The Telegraphhas since reported that Columbian Medical College – who shared an article discussing Smajdor’s paper – has apologised for doing so, claiming its only interest was “medical progress at the service of humanity with the highest bioethical standards”.
Well, we’d quite like it if medical professionals employed to care for us displayed some empathy and understanding of our particular predicaments when we need them, Anna, yes.
Meanwhile, as noted in some of the tweets above, this isn’t the only bit of news concerning bodily autonomy to be met with a backlash in recent days, amid reports of a Massachusetts bill which could see prisoners in the US state having their sentences reduced if they agree to organ or bone marrow donation.
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