Posthumous Sperm Retrieval, anyone?
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From: Peter Langston <psl>
Date: Fri, 6 Jun 97 12:46:53 -0700
Subject: Posthumous Sperm Retrieval, anyone?
Forwarded-by: Keith Bostic <email@example.com>
More want sperm from the dearly departed
-- by Dinah Wisenberg Brin, Associated Press
PHILADELPHIA -- The stories are unusual enough to make headlines: Los
Angeles Woman Seeks Lover's Sperm After He Commits Suicide. British Widow
Wins Right to Use Late Husband's Sperm for Insemination.
Doctors and medical ethicists are struggling to come up with guidelines for
a relatively new quandary: Who owns a man's sperm once he dies?
Requests to harvest sperm from dead men have increased dramatically in
recent years, according to new research from the University of Pennsylvania
Center for Bioethics.
In 1994 and 1995, 15 such procedures were completed, up from 10 between 1980
In most cases, the men had not given permission, said Arthur Caplan,
director of the Bioethics center. Sperm must be retrieved within 24 hours
of death. There are varying ways of retrieve a sample; one is to insert a
needle into the vas deferens, the tube that carries sperm out of the testes.
"You should always have consent from the person whose egg or sperm or embryo
is used," Caplan said Wednesday. "You don't want to have other people
turning you into a parent without your knowledge or consent."
The researchers found that most hospitals and clinics don't have a set
policy for such procedures, and suggested developing guidelines.
"With media attention mounting, the potential exists for a large increase
in the number of requests made for posthumous sperm retrieval," said the
study, published in next month's Journal of Urology. "The gravity of the
procedure and the potential to create children of men who died, without
their knowledge or consent, demand debate and resolution of the medical,
ethical and legal quagmires."
After conducting telephone surveys with 260 reproductive technology centers
in the United States, the researchers discovered that 40 of them had
received a total of 82 requests for posthumous sperm retrieval from 1980 to
Records indicate 25 procedures have been completed since 1980 -- nearly half
in California. But researchers believe the figures do not represent all the
The study recommended that doctors answer key questions: Who can act as
proxy for the deceased? Should reproductive material be used without
consent? Should there be limits on the number of samples that may be used?
In the case in Los Angeles, Deborah Hecht in February won custody of Bill
Kane's frozen sperm nearly six years after he killed himself, ending a
bitter legal struggle with her lover's grown children.
Kane, an author and businessman, had committed suicide in 1991 at age 48
after changing his will to include Hecht and making deposits at the sperm
In Britain, a woman went through a two-year court battle that ended in
February when she was awarded frozen sperm from her dead husband. But the
court ruled that she must go to another country to be artificially
Gladys White, executive director of the non-profit National Advisory Board
on Ethics and Reproduction in Washington, said spouses should not
automatically have the right to their dead partner's sperm.
"I think the intent to have a child with another living person does not
necessarily translate into the rights to the use of your partner's gametes
after they've died," she said.
Peter Schlegel, associate professor of urology at New York Hospital-Cornell
Medical Center, performed his first procedure more than two years ago. The
center has received nearly a dozen requests since then and three retrievals
have been performed there.
"It's very understandable that the wife would make these sort of requests,"
Schlegel said. "They feel they've lost their ability to have children."
But none of the women Schlegel dealt with has used the sperm, which can last
20 years after being frozen. After grieving, women often abandon the idea.
Schlegel follows guidelines developed 18 months ago with a hospital ethics
Among the requirements: an indication that the man might have wanted sperm
retrieved, that the person making the request be the widow, that other
family members not dissent, and that the father not carry a disease he might
pass to a child.
Earlier this month, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine issued
a statement saying a spouse's request for sperm soon after death need not
be honored, and that doctors should base their judgment on individual
"I don't think it's enough," Caplan said.
© 1997 Peter Langston