In a clinical trial from 1969 to 1972, Sir Graham Collingwood Liggins and Ross Howie showed that if doctors treat pregnant women with corticosteroids before those women deliver prematurely, then those women's infants have fewer cases of respiratory distress syndrome than do similarly premature infants of women not treated with corticosteroids. Prior to the study, premature infants born before 32 weeks of gestation often died of respiratory distress syndrome, or the inability to inflate immature lungs. Liggins and Howie, then both at the University of Auckland in Auckland, New Zealand, published their results in A Controlled Trial of Antepartum Glucorticoid Treatment for Prevention of the Respiratory Distress Syndrome in Premature Infants in 1972. The study built on experiments Liggins had earlier conducted with sheep. Liggins' corticosteroid experiments changed the way doctors treated pregnant women experiencing preterm labors, and they improved the life expectancy of prematurely born infants.
Fetal surgeries are a range of medical interventions performed in utero on the developing fetus of a pregnant woman to treat a number of congenital abnormalities. The first documented fetal surgical procedure occurred in 1963 in Auckland, New Zealand when A. William Liley treated fetal hemolytic anemia, or Rh disease, with a blood transfusion. Three surgical techniques comprise many fetal surgeries: hysterotomy, or open abdominal surgery performed on the woman; fetoscopy, for which doctors use a fiber-optic endoscope to view and make repairs to abnormalities in the fetus; and percutaneous fetal theray, for which doctors use a catheter to drain excess fluid. As the sophistication of surgical and neonatal technology advanced in the late twentieth century, so too did the number of congenital disorders fetal surgeons treated, such as mylomeningeocele, blocked urinary tracts, twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome, polyhydramnios, diaphragmatic hernia, tracheal occlusion, and other anomalies. Many discuss the ethics of fetal surgery, as many consider it contentious, as fetal surgery risks both the developing fetus and the pregnant woman, and at times it only marginally improves patient outcomes. Some argue, however, that as more advanced diagnostic equipment and surgical methods improve, advanced clinical trials in a few conditions may demonstrate more benefits than risks to both pregnant women and fetuses.
Surgeons sometimes operate on the developing fetuses in utero of pregnant women as a medical intervention to treat a number of congential abnormalities, operations that have ethical aspects. A. William Liley performed the first successful fetal surgery, a blood transfusion, in New Zealand in 1963 to counteract the effects of hemolytic anemia, or Rh disease. The ethical discussions surrounding fetal surgery are complex and are still being defined, as fetal surgery represents an emerging field of in utero medical interventions that impact the quality of life for both pregnant women and fetuses. Such discussions involve the ethical relationships between parents, fetuses, doctors, and health care organizations like hospitals. What may benefit the fetus may harm the pregnant woman, and what may benefit the pregnant woman could negatively impact the viability of the pregnancy. Risks to the pregnant woman include preterm membrane rupture, preterm labor, wound infection, hemorrhage, loss of uterus, damage to the organs near the uterus, and possibly death. Fetal surgery does not always improve the quality of life for the developing fetus, and the risks and benefits of fetal surgery must be carefully weighed and discussed between the medical team, the pregnant woman, and her partner to customize the most ethical plan of action
Albert William Liley advanced the science of fetal physiology and the techniques of life-saving in utero blood transfusions for fetuses with Rh incompatibility, also known as hemolytic disease. Due to his advances, fetuses too young to survive premature delivery, and likely to die in utero if their Rh incompabilities were left untreated, were successfully transfused and carried to term. Liley was as passionate as a clinician and researcher as he was about his views on the rights of the unborn.
Sir Graham Collingwood Liggins devoted much of his professional life to obstetric research. Liggins demonstrated that hormones created by the fetus helped initiate labor, rather than hormones originating solely from the mother. Liggins also discovered that cortisol given to pregnant mothers helped delay premature labor, and that it increased the likelihood that premature infants would breathe normally after birth. Prior to cortisol treatment, premature infants often died of respiratory distress syndrome characterized by the inability to inflate immature lungs. Before the clinical application of Liggins' discoveries in the 1980s, premature infants born before 32 weeks of gestation generally died because of respiratory distress.