What if conception happened after your dad died?
All children inevitably ask where they come from. One potential mother is going to have a harder job than most.
“Well darling, your father committed suicide and I had to get a court order to retrieve his sperm within twenty four hours of his death. Then I had to get another court order to use the sperm. And that’s how you were born.”
Last week one woman’s bid to access her dead husband’s sperm was granted by Supreme Court Justice James Edelman, paving the way to allow West Australian women to access their dead husbands’ sperm without a court order.
The couple had been trying to conceive for 2 years, and had recently resorted to IVF. Having a history of depression, the man took his life early this year.
This woman can access her husband’s sperm but she can’t use it. Due to WA legislation, a further court order will need to be granted if she wants to conceive a child.
When I first heard the news, I was supportive of the woman and thought “why not?”
In marriage you are together for richer and poorer, in good times and bad, with low sperm counts and high.
But the physical and mental implications for the mother, and the child if she decides to have this baby, need serious consideration.
Posthumous sperm retrieval (PSR) is a relatively new medical phenomenon. The first case of PSR was in the 1980s, when a 30-year-old man died in a motor vehicle accident and his family wanted to preserve his sperm.
The first successful conception of a baby from a cadaver was in 1998, the baby was born successfully the following year.
PSR is a procedure rarely performed and this means evidence is lacking. Previous studies in 2005, 2006 and 2009 have shown that assisted conception is linked to an increased risk of birth defects.
In a study conducted in South Australia in 2012, natural pregnancies were associated with a 5.8 per cent chance of a birth defect whereas assisted pregnancies were associated with an 8.3 per cent chance. And with all of these pregnancies, the fathers were alive.
That is not to say that IVF babies don’t go on to have full and healthy lives.
If we weren’t already on the vanguard of a Brave New World, we are certainly close to it, with scientists essentially creating life from death.
Governments around the world have responded to PRS differently, with Germany, Sweden, Canada and the state of Victoria in Australia legislating against posthumous assisted reproduction. Western Australia has regulations which forbid the posthumous use of gametes.
In the UK, you’re not allowed to legally store posthumous sperm without the man’s prior written consent.
In France, the entire act of posthumous insemination is forbidden.
But beyond medical statistics and government legislation, this issue ultimately hinges on whether PSR is ethically justifiable.
I’m uncertain about the ethics of retrieving sperm from men who are dead or in a vegetative state, and who have not given their prior consent. I worry for the quality of life of the children who are conceived in this way.
Hypothetically, if a child conceived using posthumous sperm was born and developed disabilities, does that child then have right to seek compensation from the government which allowed the insemination to take place?
These ethical riddles can only really be answered by women who choose to take this path. As a society, we need to implement safeguards to ensure that these women make well-informed decisions which are fair to the child.
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