Texas leads the way with experimental surgery for preborn babies

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As surgical technology advances, doctors are better able to address health conditions before a baby is even born.  By treating a child’s conditions before birth, doctors can sometimes prevent further damage, facilitate a healthy delivery, and even reverse a fatal condition.

For years, Texas hospitals have been a leader in open fetal surgery.  In these procedures, doctors open the womb and operate on the preborn baby.  One Texan who is living proof of the success of open fetal surgery is Lynlee Hope Boemer who was “born twice,” once at 23 weeks’ gestation to remove a tumor from the base of her spine and again 13 weeks later when she was delivered by caesarian section.

Although open fetal surgery has been successful for many mothers and babies, some doctors have concerns about the limitations of the invasive procedure.  Doctors who have taken steps to address these concerns have been performing experimental operations at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston since 2014.  The New York Times reports that Michael A. Belfort and Dr. William Whitehead have made groundbreaking use of fetoscopic surgery.

Unlike open fetal surgery, fetoscopic surgery does not involve fully opening the uterus to operate on the baby.  Opening the uterus poses risks to mother and baby for delivery and carries risks for the mother in future pregnancies.  Instead, Drs. Belfort and Whitehead have developed a technique of opening the mother’s abdomen and making very small slits in the uterus, incisions that should heal without long-term consequences, and inserting a “fetoscope,” which is “a small telescope fitted with a camera, light and grasping tool,” and other miniature instruments.

The team at Texas Children’s has used the experimental surgery to address the needs of preborn babies with spina bifida.  Because spina bifida is rarely fatal, doctors are reluctant to operate on the babies before birth for fear of risking the baby’s Life.  On the other hand, some of the complications of spina bifida, including the inability to walk and the build-up of fluid in the brain, may be worsened by the time the condition is left untreated in utero.  According to the New York Times:

A landmark study published in 2011 found that — for carefully selected fetuses — prenatal surgery was better than operating after birth.  The percentage of children who could walk independently rose to 40 percent from 20 percent, and the need for a shunt [to remove fluid from the brain]was cut in half, to 40 percent from 82 percent.

One couple who sought the experimental fetoscopic surgery was Joshuwa and Lexi Royer.  The Royers learned early in the pregnancy that their son had a severe form of spina bifida.  The California family came to Houston for days of testing, which determined they were good candidates for the experimental surgery.  Before making the decision to pursue fetoscopic surgery, the Royers told the New York Times, they faced pressure from their medical team to end their son’s Life through abortion.  This kind of anti-Life coercion is sadly common for parents facing an uncertain medical condition for their preborn child.  Parents who seek alternatives can find possibilities many doctors have never learned.  This was the case for the Royers and fetoscopic surgery.

Ms. Royer and her preborn son underwent the operation in late September.  The results are not guaranteed, but the family and medical team are optimistic that the surgery will offset some of the adverse effects of severe spina bifida.  Thanks for fetoscopic surgery, the Royers’ son has a chance at Life that is denied to many babies diagnosed prenatally with a disability.  Fetoscopic surgery, like open fetal surgery, gives us an unprecedented view inside the womb and continues to remind us of the humanity of the preborn.

We wish the Royers the best in the months ahead!

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