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Live sperm, dead bodies.

Live Sperm, Dead Bodies


Not only do technical means exist for post-mortem sperm recovery, but compelling ethical reasons as well. As a physician, my primary motivation is to relieve pain and suffering. Eleven years ago I harvested sperm from a young man who had sustained fatal head injuries. While the deceased was unmarried and without a fiancee, this man's father was consoled by knowing that viable sperm were stored. When I recovered sperm from another young man who had died of a gunshot wound, his parents followed me to the sperm bank and were comforted when they saw motile sperm from their son. Preserving "part of the deceased" let them identify with their lost son, and allowed the possibility of continuation of the patrilineal heritage. To bestow such consolation at a time of grief and tragedy is clearly part of my role as a healer.

Thousands of children have been born from sperm stored for many years and some have been conceived after the death of their fathers. The most publicized case occured in France when the National Sperm Bank refused to release sperm to a woman whose husband had recently died. Public opinion in her favor was so strong as to compel the release of the sperm to her. Such instances provide for individual rights, pose no harm to society, and allow for freedom of choice on an issue that, while unusual, is important to them.

Clearly there is a growing demand for information on post-mortem sperm recovery. National medical conferences, lay publications, radio, and television have all covered this issue. More and more instances occur where a wife requests recovery and storage of sperm from her recently deceased spouse.

At present, no legislation exists to restrict or regulate sperm retrieval. To date, no children have been born from sperm stored after such recovery, but the possibility exists; recent advances have enabled men with vas obstruction to have children by aspirating epididymal sperm. Such valuable and available technology should not be unnecessarily restricted. If parents can legally release their son's organs for transplantation, why should they not be able to store his sperm? And if a man can store sperm prior to an anticipated death, why shouldn't the wife of a man who dies an untimely death have the same opportunity?

Certainly situations could complicate what might seem a fairly straightforward issue. If Bill's fiancee, for example, objects to the use of his sperm, should his father or parents retain rights to its use with another woman? What would be the rights of the offspring with regard to property and position? Who will establish informed consent for the woman who will carry this child and also have a genetic interest? (Perhaps Bill has genetic abnormalities that his fiancee is unaware of and that are not apparent during harvesting and storage ...) Who controls release of the stored sperm and for which purposes?

I can envision circumstances under which I would decline to retrieve sperm from the deceased - when there is clearly a conflict of interest between survivors as to the use of the sperm or when there are questions regarding the intent of the deceased to father children. But deciding whose rights to sperm should prevail is not my role, lessening grief and offering alternatives remain my priorities.

Sperm harvesting requires immediate action to recover viable and motile sperm. At present, sperm recovery has been successfully performed because such immediate action can be taken based on the "best judgement" of the physician. If an ethics committee review were necessary for each procedure, would the sperm still be viable? If the committee ruled "yes," and the delay prevented successful retrieval, who would be liable? Unless a clearly adverse situation exists, recovery should proceed at once to enable well-considered decisions later.

Cappy Miles Rothman is a urologist in private practice in Los Angeles, CA.
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Title Annotation:includes commentaries
Author:Nolan, Kathleen; Rothman, Cappy Miles; Ross, Judith Wilson
Publication:The Hastings Center Report
Date:Jan 1, 1990
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