When West Point Cadet Peter Zhu was killed in a ski accident, his parents were devastated, as any parents would be. They had imagined a future for their son and family, one that included grandchildren, the fulfillment of family legacy, and years of happiness.
That was all dashed, and in their heartbreak, while their son’s organs were being harvested for donation his parents asked for his sperm to be extracted as well. This is typically done for widows who plan to conceive and carry their deceased husband’s baby, then intend to mother the child. While there have been a few cases of parents harvesting their sons’ reproductive material, it raises far more questions than when a woman wants to conceive with her dead husband playing sperm donor.
There is an explicit agreement within the marriage bond that the pair is into having children together. If people get married, one can assume that each believes his or her partner is not only an acceptable person with whom to raise children, but the best person. In the event of a spouse’s untimely death, this could indicate to a judge that the deceased half of the pair would be amenable to the remaining half continuing their family with the help of posthumously harvested eggs or seeds.
That is what is so perplexing about the decision to allow Zhu’s parents, and other parents who have been in this position, to take charge of their dead child’s potential future offspring. His parents are not doing this out of a desire to mother, or parent, but to preserve and continue the legacy of their family, that, per their tradition, can only move forward with their son’s heirs.
Posthumous sperm collection has been going on in the United States since the 1970s. Its authorized procurement and use has been determined on a case-by-case basis. There are many countries that don’t allow it, including some that pretty much allow anything, so it’s telling that they don’t allow this.
As of 2016, France, Germany, Sweden, Canada, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom all have prohibitions against it. In each of these places, women can have babies via sperm donor, but not posthumously obtained sperm. The key difference between a living sperm donor and a dead sperm donor is, of course, consent.
In the United States, artificial reproduction falls under state regulation, while organ and tissue donation is governed on a federal level. In response to the lack of oversight, Weill Cornell Medicine in New York issued a set of guidelines for the ethics of postmortem sperm retrieval (PMSR). These guidelines address consent, first and foremost.
Weill Cornell Medicine only considers requests for sperm retrieval from the decedent’s wife, not other family, next-of-kin or other family members. Such a request should elicit convincing evidence that the man would have wanted to conceive children this way, and evaluation of the request should also be supported by unanimous agreement among available members of the immediate family.
At the heart of this issue is ensuring that the lost loved one genuinely intended to procreate or was already trying to conceive with his wife. Consideration of whether the decedent would have wanted conception to occur postmortem with his wife should also be evaluated. This can be determined through their actions or discussions prior to death with respect to conception/ pregnancy. Their stated, written, or acted on wishes prior to death should weigh significantly in any decision-making regarding PMSR.
The wife should be the primary provider of the deceased’s intentions to procreate and giving permission for PMSR, as well as considered the only person for whom the sperm could be used for procreation.
The guidelines, not the wishes of parents who are desperate to keep some piece of the future they imagined, should be what drives a decision to allow the creation of new life with a dead man’s seed. They are common-sense guidelines, based in some semblance of the man’s wishes, his intent, and the surety of his chosen partner.
Should they go through with this undertaking, Zhu’s parents will be choosing a reproductive partner for their son, something that is not typically done in this day and age. They will be choosing who will gestate their grandchild, as well.
In their grief, these parents will be creating an orphan. Presumably, they will not find a woman who wishes to be surrogate, egg donor, and mother to their son’s baby, simply for the pleasure of Zhu’s parents. If they were to find a woman who would enlist in that project, they should be wary, because that’s a completely insane thing to do.
Experiencing the loss of a child is the single most painful, unrecoverable, miserable thing that can happen in life. It makes perfect sense that grieving parents would want to replace that child, to make from his life a new life, someone they could give all their lost love to.
As a mother, I feel for them fully. However, it is simply not ethical to manufacture your own orphaned grandchild in an attempt to ease your grief or carry on the family line. Their feelings must be overwhelming, and it is natural to want to do anything even remotely possible to help ease suffering, but this is not rational, and it is not in the best interests of any child produced by such a process.
In 2009, Missy Evans, a grieving mother in Texas, obtained the right to harvest her son’s sperm. After several failed attempts at international surrogacy, she tabled the project. Her other son had a child, and she decided to focus on the life in her family. As painful as it is to let go, it is the right thing to do.
Grieving parents who mourn their lost future as grandparents should not be making decisions about whether to bring their son’s motherless orphans into the world. No amount of reproductive technology will bring him back, and the lengths they would have to go to just to make this happen are quite frankly satirical.