Postmortem Sperm Retrieval (PMSR) is the act of inseminating a woman with sperms that have been extracted from a dead man or a man in a persistent vegetative state (PVS) (Weller, 2013). It has been in existence for decades now since Rothman reported the first case in 1980. Rothman’s case had a 30-year older man involved in an accident, and his family wished to preserve his sperms (Rothman, 1980). It has been considered a life production act; however, the primary debate is whether it is ethically and morally accepted. Although it has conflicted with many religions, it does not mean the act is unethical. There are circumstances that, if they are weighed against what the bible says, may permit PMSR.
On the contrary, others may not. This paper will first give two examples of PMSR incidents and explore the circumstances under which PMSR can be biblically ethical or unethical by examining three ethical considerations. The ethical considerations include; reasons for procreation in an ordinary context, interests of the child, and the deceased’s consent.
Major Reported Scenarios
PMSR is not a new concept, and besides the stated case in the introduction part, there have been many other scenarios. In many cases, it occurs when a couple feels that the man is about to die due to illnesses or when untimely deaths occur. One of the notable scenarios is of a widow in France, Alain Parpalaix, whose husband died of cancer. Alain obtained a court’s approval to use the husband’s spermatozoa, saying that his husband wanted it to be used in producing a child, as Benshushan & Schenker (1998) says. Besides illness, men pursuing risk-related activities like a soldier going for a battle might wish to do the same. Another case was from Wiliam Kane, who committed suicide and instructed that the spermatozoa he had stored be used to inseminate his girlfriend after his death in the USA. Each of these scenarios raises the question of whether PMSR production should be ethically acceptable or not.
Ethical Considerations in PMSR Production
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Reasons for Procreation in Ordinary Contexts
While posthumous reproduction may seem unethical to many, there are ethical biblical reasons that support its permission. However, one might ask how the bible permits such an act as it seems immoral to tamper with an already dead body. To answer this question, it is imperative to examine the reasons for procreation in an ordinary context or why people procreate through sexual intercourse and later examine whether these reasons apply to posthumous reproduction. Those that will apply might form an ethical basis for performing a postmortem sperm retrieval. This is because procreation can be achieved through different ways and does not matter whether it is done through sexual intercourse or posthumous reproduction, provided God’s will is achieved.
The first reason people value ordinary procreation is to take part in the creation of a person. As the bible says in Genesis 1:28, God instructed the man to procreate and fill the earth, and by doing so, the man will have stayed faithful to the will of God. Due to this, a man may want to participate in the creation of a human being. Regarding this, PMSR may be ethical if a man wished to participate but did not get a chance to do so, probably due to an illness or a sudden death. For instance, if a husband dies unexpectedly two weeks after his marriage, and had a lot of expectations to become a dad, then, in such a case inseminating the wife with the husband’s spermatozoa is ethical if the aim is to fulfill God’s word. Moreover, participating in the act might be regarded as acting as God’s instrument.
The second reason procreation is valued in ordinary contexts is that it is a sign of mutual love and acceptance. People engage in sexual intercourse to prove their love for each other. And according to Ephesians 5:33, married couples are asked to love each other in which, to some, the meaning of love is portrayed through procreating together. A woman may claim that she wants a dead husband’s genes to contribute to the genetic makeup of her child as a sign of love. Looking at PMSR in such a context where a wife wants to extend her love to a dead husband in an attempt to show love as the Bible commands, then using the husband’s spermatozoa can be regarded as ethical. Therefore, the two reasons might allow postmortem sperm retrieval to be biblically considered ethical or moral.
Interests of the Child
Another ethical issue to consider before performing posthumous reproduction in the interests of the child. No child would want to be born and later on suffer in life. The fact that a posthumous reproduction will prompt a child to be raised by one surviving parent poses a threat of suffering to the child. In many cases, a child reared by a single parent may suffer financial constraints or lack of fatherly love essential as a child grows up. The primary concern is that bringing a child to life might be harmful to it. However, some scholars like Strong & Schinfeld (1984) have objected to this view, saying that it cannot be assumed that the act that brings a child into being is the same act that harms the child. Therefore, it is crucial to consider the meaning of “harm” in this context. Feinberg (1984) explains that a person is harmed if they are made worse off than they otherwise would have been.
Regarding Feinberg’s statement, PMSR may be unethical if a child is caused to suffer that they would if they were not born. For instance, it is not guaranteed that a child born through posthumous reproduction will be healthy and sound. In fact, many cases are when children are born with physical and mental challenges. Hence, involving in the act may pose a challenge to the born child, which might cause them to suffer for the rest of their lives. According to Proverbs 19:18, the scripture says,” Discipline your children, for in that there is hope; do not be a willing party to their death.” It is evident from the bible that parents are not supposed to take part in their children’s death, but the suffering that the surviving parent brings to the child by bearing it through insemination might lead to the child’s death. Hence, in such a context, it is biblically unethical to perform posthumous reproduction because of the child’s interests.
Consent- Explicit or Inferred
The last ethical issue to consider is the concept of the dead man, whether explicit or inferred. It will be termed unethical if a physician performs the act in the absence of the man’s prior explicit consent. To justify that it is ethical, before his death, the man should leave a written document that permits his wife to bear a child through spermatozoa insemination. Even though the bible does not mention the consent of a man in bearing a child, morally, any man would wish to decide whether he wants to bear a child or not. Therefore, it is vital to consider whether the man had left a written document that he would want his sperms to be used in impregnating his wife.
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Alternatively, a physician may justify posthumous reproduction’s ethicality by asking the family members such as the wife, mother, sister, or brother, whether the deceased would consent to do so when he was alive. Suppose they agree he would do so without divided opinions. In that case, it may be considered ethical and unethical if some disagree because it is disrespectful to do things on a deceased body they would not wish to be done when alive. However, the bible in 1st Corinthians 7:2 says that a wife does not have authority over her body but yields it to the husband; likewise, a man does not have authority over his own body but gives it to his wife. According to this verse, even after the man dies, the wife has authority over his body biblically, making posthumous reproduction ethical. However, another ethical dilemma in this scenario is that the family members may lie to act according to their interests. Therefore, inferred consent may not be considered unless it is reasonable.
To sum up, biblically, postmortem sperm retrieval may be ethical or unethical depending on three ethical considerations: reasons for procreating, the interests of the child, and the consent of the deceased. Reasons for procreating may be to fulfill God’s will of procreation or to show love to the deceased as per the bible’s command of love to each other. For both reasons, engaging in PMSR is biblically ethical. However, the child’s interests as an ethical consideration do not permit PMSR to be carried out because, as per the bible, no parent is supposed to take part in their child’s suffering. Lastly, ethical consideration of the deceased’s consent is vital because, without the deceased’s consent, tampering with their bodies shows disrespect. However, if the deceased leaves a written document or if the family members report reasonably inferred consent, then it might be ethical. Nonetheless, this is a debate that cannot be quantified through minor research, and more research needs to be done. Even though the discussed ethical considerations may guide a physician, it is also crucial to deeply examine what the bible says about procreation.
Benshushan, A., & Schenker, J. G. (1998). The right to an heir in the era of assisted reproduction. Human Reproduction, 13(5), 1407-1410. doi:10.1093/humrep/13.5.1407
Feinberg, J. (1984) Harm to Others. Oxford University Press, New York, USA.
Rothman, C. M. (1980). A method for obtaining viable sperm in the postmortem state. Fertility and Sterility, 34(5), 512. Doi: 10.1016/s0015-0282(16)45147-2
Strong, C. and Schinfeld, J.S. (1984) the single woman and artificial insemination by donor. J. Reprod. Med., 29, 293–299.
WellerC. (2013, June 13). Sperm retrieval after death: What are the ethical concerns? Retrieved from https://www.medicaldaily.com/sperm-retrieval-after-death-what-are-ethical-concerns-246798