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Posthumous Fatherhood

Ethical challenges abound when you create a child using a dead man's sperm

Of all the various modern ways of making babies via assisted reproductive technology, one of the weirdest and most ethically challenging is the practice of inseminating a woman with sperm taken from a man who's already dead. A close second is taking sperm from a man who's not dead yet, but dying, who wants to leave a mark on the world via a baby he will never meet.

Several scenarios could lead to such a set-up, each with its own special tragedy. Sometimes the man donating the sperm is being treated for cancer, and wants to have sperm that's unaffected by the radiation or chemotherapy he faces. He didn't mean to become a posthumous father, but if the treatment doesn't work, and he dies, his widow or his grieving parents might think that's something they want. Sometimes the man dies suddenly, as in a traffic accident or other trauma, and his sperm is retrieved -- either by excising a piece of testicular tissue called the epididymis, aspirating sperm from the vas deferens, or using a procedure called electroejaculation -- just in case someone can figure out a way to use it legally. 

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One such story came to a happy ending -- or at least a bittersweet ending -- last month. According to this article from Israel News by Eti Abramov, an unnamed young Israeli man who died of cancer six years ago had frozen his sperm before chemotherapy, and had made it clear to his parents that he hoped his sperm could be used eventually to give them the grandchild they never had. They began their search four years ago, bringing their request to the law offices of a specialist in fertility issues, Irit Rosenblum. About three years later, with Rosenblum satisfied that all the legal hurdles had been jumped, the man's parents chose a young woman, a childless 30-something known as A., to be the surrogate mother to a baby created with their son's frozen sperm. "The connection between them and A. was very special," Rosenblum said to the reporter. "They told me once that had their son brought a girl home it would be someone like her." Earlier in 2013, A. gave birth to a healthy baby girl.

In the U.S. as well as in Israel, cases like this are working their way through the court system, with more and more families asking to use the sperm of a dead male to create a baby who will then be their closest tie to the loved one they lost. Each case is different, and each case presents a moral quandary. I wonder how many young women will find themselves thinking the way A. does, that this is a way to raise a child alone without being really alone -- a baby born without a father but with automatic, loving grandparents who will always want to lend a hand.

 

Robin Marantz Henig is a science journalist and co-author, with her daughter Samantha Henig, of Twentysomething: Why Do Young Adults Seem Stuck?

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