Making Babies After Death: Is It Ethical?

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Is it ethical to use a dead man's sperm to father a child? Experts are calling for a consensus on policies surrounding this question, which currently vary widely across the country.

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It has been possible for a few decades to obtain a man’s sperm after his death and use it to fertilize an egg. Today, requests for postmortem sperm retrieval (PMSR) are growing, yet the United States has no guidelines governing the retrieval of sperm from deceased men, said Dr. Larry Lipshultz, a urologist at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas.

In the absence of government regulations, medical institutions should come up with their own rules so they can handle the time-sensitive and ethically questionable procedures, Lipshultz argued in an editorial published June 5 in the journal Fertility and Sterility.

Requests for PMSR can come from the wife or parents of a young man who suddenly died in an accident before having a chance to leave a child, and requests can also come from living, terminally ill men who wish to preserve sperm to be used after death.

But the institutions trying to draft a protocol for these situations face a number of ethical concerns. For example, has the deceased consented to have his sperm used for reproduction after he’s gone? Could just anybody request to obtain his sperm? Is it in the best interest of the child to be brought into the world without having a father?

What everyone seems to agree on is that the man’s wishes should be clear. "The core principle is not to reproduce anyone without their permission," said Arthur Caplan,head of the division of medical ethics at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York. (He was not involved in the editorial published in Fertility and Sterility).

Some institutions follow this principle strictly, and require written, informed consent from the deceased before they will retrieve sperm cells. However, many of the requests come in cases in which a man died unexpectedly, without ever having thought about giving explicit consent.

In the absence of written consent, some institutions may still honor the request if there is evidence that sperm retrieval may have been the wish of the deceased. For example, if a couple had been trying to conceive or had talked about it with friends and family, it can imply consent, Lipshultz told LiveScience.