Human Interest

UK doctors perform first in-utero surgeries on babies with spina bifida

spina bifida, Hand of Hope

Working together for hours, a team of 30 doctors at University College Hospital in London have successfully performed surgeries on two babies before their births. While these fetal surgeries have been conducted in the United States for decades, this was the UK’s pioneering debut. A celebrated success, the pair of surgeries were done to repair the spines of babies diagnosed in utero with spina bifida.

University College London professor Anne David is the pioneer who has worked for years to bring this fetal surgery to the UK. She told the BBC, “There were some children who had grown up following foetal surgery who were walking and you wouldn’t expect them to be walking if they hadn’t had it.” Professor David knew that UK moms needed an option, closer to home, for their babies to have repaired spines. She has succeeded. Now, babies in the UK who are diagnosed with spina bifida have an even more promising outlook on life.

Oliver Hinkley, whose mother fought for him after he was diagnosed with spina bifida

Medical advances and innovative research have resulted in a new reality for patients diagnosed with spina bifida. When the condition is caught prior to birth, parents can often seek out fetal surgery for their child. In these surgeries, the womb is at least partially placed outside the mother — while still connected to her — and the child inside is painstakingly operated on. The BBC reports that “tiny stitches” are used to close the hole in the baby’s spine. This, combined with the remaining time in the womb where the child grows, allows the child to heal in amazing ways.

READ: ‘My son has broken every boundary set on him’: Life with spina bifida

Tragically, many parents seek abortion when their child is diagnosed with spina bifida. Doctors commonly offer or push “termination” on parents, telling them their child’s quality of life will be low. However, medical professionals often fail to fully inform parents of the advancements in medicine, pioneering options like fetal surgery, and the reality of life with spina bifida in a modern world.

Roughly a decade ago, Nicole Steng’s doctor gave her terrible news about her preborn son:

He said it was the biggest lesion he had ever seen; that our son would probably never go to the bathroom on his own. He’d never walk, never talk. He said this based on a 30 second ultrasound. He said, “I will absolutely perform the abortion for you.” I could see Titus’ arms and head moving and his heart beating at the time the doctor said this. He was emphatic that Titus would be basically a vegetable and mentally retarded. And that it would be unfair to him for me to give birth.

Despite this prediction, Nicole and her husband refused to abandon or abort their son. While Titus was unable to have fetal surgery, he has defied the opinions of the doctor who would have ended his life. Titus plays sports, goes to school, and has plenty to say. His parents and sisters adore him and couldn’t imagine life without their boy.

Titus Steng as a toddler, diagnosed with spina bifida. Doctors said he would be a vegetable and suggested he should do an abortion at eight months.


Smily Titus in his “rabbit” as a young child.

The Mayo Clinic is very positive in regards to the treatment of and outlook for children with spina bifida. They write:

News that your newborn child has a condition such as spina bifida can naturally cause you to feel grief, anger, frustration, fear and sadness. There’s good reason to hope, however, because most people with spina bifida live active, productive and full lives — especially with encouragement and support from loved ones.

Thanks to fetal surgery, people with spina bifida have even more options. But first, they must be given the gift of life.

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