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What if?

Have you ever thought what would you do if prenatal diagnosis of infertility would be possible? Some types can already be diagnosed in utero: Turner syndrome, FraX, a disease that leads to premature ovarian insufficiency and some other inherited causes of both male and female infertility. Except for Turner syndrome which involves complications beyond the reproduction, there’s no routine prenatal screening for such. With a rapid development of medical genetics and reproductive medicine, many women are now asking for a “designer’s baby” and a question about passing down infertility often arises among IVF mums-to-be.

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Some time ago, at a meeting on MRKH syndrome, a congenital absence of uterus and upper part of vagina,  several clinicians and I discussed how and when to make a diagnosis. Based on my research experience in reproductive epidemiology, I asked if it would be possible to diagnose MRKH prenatally. Nowadays, even very discreet details of fetal heart and brain can be visualised with ultrasound, so why not a relatively big organ? None of the experts knew if it would be possible or not but my question caused a heated debate.

It has already been agreed that the aim of prenatal testing is to improve perinatal outcomes and prevent a catastrophic disability of a potential baby. This is done by delivering a baby with a heart defect at a hospital equipped with pediatric cardiac surgery facilities. It also means that a mother can decide to terminate her pregnancy to prevent her own and neonatal suffering. We do not test for genetic predispositions for adult diseases, like BRCA1 gene mutation. Prenatal testing for gender selection is strictly forbidden almost everywhere. So, the question is “Is MRKH syndrome serious enough to allow prenatal testing for it?”.

Personally, I strongly believe suffering caused by this untreatable form of infertility is tragic enough that I do not wish even my worst enemies to go through it. While physical pain can be well-managed, emotional one is untreatable when all you want is your very own baby. In determining how severe a disease is we should consider emotional aspects and how it impacts a quality of life. It has already been proven that infertility is among one of the most stressful situations in one’s life. Unfortunately, it is very often forgotten by doctors and policy-makers.

With the recent developments in surrogacy and most recently, uterus transplantations I am not the only one wondering if MRKH could be prevented among our potential children. Genetic causes still remain unknown, pre-gestational genetic testing (PGD) is not an option, so ultrasound seems to be the only potential option. The main problem is that there is very little data on assessment of fetal uterus. It has already been found that a vaginal and a cervix should be visible as early as 19 weeks but it is rather anecdotal/case series than real evidence-based medicine (EBM). Certainly more research is needed, but based on what is already known, it should be possible to diagnose congenital absence of uterus in utero.

So, why is it not done? Set aside that most gynecologists know very little or nothing about MRKH and often fail to diagnose it in teenagers, it is a rare disease, it does not impact perinatal outcome, nor is lethal, and most believe it does not cause a disability (as if mental health and social wellbeing impairments weren’t such?!). All the top experts at the previously mentioned meeting were literally disgusted with my idea of prenatal testing for MRKH and they repeatedly asked why would I like to do so? We do not question why we screen for other conditions, so it was bemusing to hear their nonchalant and ignorant opinions. At that point in the discussion, I had not mentioned even a vague possibility of terminating a pregnancy with MRKH syndrome. As I said, fetal uterus (mainly cervix) should be visible on anomaly scan, so still within the legal time boundaries for late abortion (up to 21+6 here in Sweden). Due to the relatively liberal Swedish law, any fetal malformation is reason enough to grant a permission for termination of pregnancy.

I have been considering what I would do if I was pregnant (or in an unlikely case of a surrogate carrying for me) with a girl. Would I seek the best of the best, creme de la creme maternal-fetal medicine specialists to make sure she has her reproductive organs in place or would I prefer not to know and wait until she hits puberty? Such decisions are always extremely hard to make. I believe that every effort should always be done to make sure that every baby entering this world is healthy and gets the best possible start. I am also aware about the concept of “wrongful life” which, very briefly, means that a child was born with a medical condition because someone opted out of  proper preconceptional counselling or there was an error in prenatal testing. It is sometimes extended to parents who opted out of testing or even decided to continue pregnancy despite abnormal results. Based on my best professional knowledge and personal experience, I am pretty sure I would terminate a pregnancy knowing that the fetus has no uterus. This is important to note that so-called “pregnant brain” is a real thing and I might not be so strongly-voiced and sure while facing to make such decision during a very expected pregnancy.

Even some of my pro-choice colleagues disagree with the claim that infertility is a disease serious enough to allow termination of pregnancy. As I discussed previously, it is my personal perspective which makes me believe that I could not bear a girl who would have to suffer with MRKH. All those who ask me “Oh, so you think your life is worth nothing?” should first think before speaking up. Would it be ethically acceptable to allow a fellow human being suffer? As doctors we are taught “first, do not harm” and it is a bright example how to exercise this rule. In addition to mental and physical suffering there are also very high costs related to medical care which should be taken into account by competent authorities allowing late abortions.

Summing up, I strongly believe everyone has a right to healthy and happy life free from pain and suffering and whenever possible we should prevent bringing suffering to this world. Let me answer the question from the above paragraph: “If I had a choice as a fetus whether to be born with all the birth defects I have or not to be born at all, I would choose not to be born. Yes, I regret perinatal medicine 28-29 years ago didn’t allow prenatal diagnosis of MRKH. I am sure the world would be a better place without my suffering.”.

Karina Sasin

Naukowczyni, aktywistka na rzecz praw reprodukcyjnych. Redaktor Naukowa "Chcemy Być Rodzicami". Wielokrotna stypendystka m.in. Organizacji Narodów Zjednoczonych, Rządu USA (NIH) i Krajowego Funduszu Na Rzecz Dzieci. Organizatorka konferencji International Meeting on MRKH Syndrome. Po godzinach miłośniczka cukiernictwa i dalekich podróży ;-)