Life Long After Death: Collecting Sperm From the Deceased
It’s a scenario that’s guaranteed to stump even the most experienced family historian… How could a child’s birth occur months, years, even decades after the death of their biological father? Well, hold on to your census records and birth certificates, genealogists, because collecting sperm from a deceased man is a practice that’s not only perfectly legal — it’s happening more often than you think. But is it ethical, and where do you fit in as the deathcare professional caring for the deceased donor?
Posthumous sperm retrieval (PSR), or post-mortem sperm retrieval (PMSR), is not a new concept. The procedure was first introduced in the late 1970s, and the first live birth from sperm extracted using PSR occurred in 1999. The physician who performed the first PSR procedure as well as the procedure that resulted in the first live birth from PSR was Los Angeles urologist Cappy Rothman. Now the owner of the largest sperm bank in the United States, Rothman performed more than 200 PSRs from 1980 to 2014. Although requests for PSR today are described by one source as “rare,” they are also “increasing in frequency.”
Whose sperm is it, anyway?
As you can imagine, PSR procedures aren’t without controversy. However, the most important thing anyone involved in the PSR process should know is that the United States has no guidelines or laws regarding this procedure, unlike Canada, France, Germany, and Sweden, which prohibit PSR. In the U.S., federal laws governing tissue and organ donation do not address sperm, and artificial reproduction is governed by states. Instead, the decision to participate or not is usually up to the practitioner or facility where it takes place.
The only direction offered by a reputable source on the ethics of PSR was provided in 2018 by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM). The organization’s ethics committee determined that PSR is “ethically justifiable if written documentation from the deceased authorizing the procedure is available.” Additionally, the opinion advises that entities only consider requests from the surviving spouse or partner — as opposed to a request from a parent, for example. Again, though, these are only guidelines.
Not surprisingly, creating such a document isn’t usually top of mind for men in the prime of their lives. One exceptions are in the case of donations made at sperm banks, where donors are asked if they would consent to post-mortem use of their sperm, or with a patient suffering from a terminal illness.
Where it happens
Typically, PSR requests occur when a man dies unexpectedly, and the procedure must be performed within 24 to 36 hours of death. Decisions and arrangements have to be made quickly, and in the absence of written documentation, there often isn’t time to fully consider all of the legal, moral, and ethical ramifications. In many cases, practitioners will perform the procedure, then leave the decision of what to do with the sperm to others.
The retrieval itself is a fairly straightforward surgical procedure, but wrangling the logistics — completing paperwork, securing a urologist or surgeon, and performing lab tests — can take 12 hours or more. The surgery itself is best performed in a facility with proper preservation equipment and storage solutions, like a hospital or fertility clinic. For this reason, the ASRM has urged hospitals — and their emergency departments, in particular — to establish policies and procedures for PSR requests, although most have not yet done so.
Your role in PSR
In the event the deceased has already been removed to a funeral home or medical examiner’s office, the family will request that the body be transported to an appropriate facility for the surgery itself. To be clear, PSR should not be performed by a member of your staff or take place in your morgue.
As for your role in the decision-making process … Well, to put it bluntly, you probably shouldn’t be involved. While the ethical and moral debates over PSR tend to place the option into the “end-of-life decisions” category with advanced directives and preneeds, PSR is outside the purview of deathcare professionals.
Of course, the decision to perform PSR most often must be made as families are suffering from the shock of a sudden loss and grieving the death of someone taken too soon. For this reason, the ASRM guidelines dictate that retrieved sperm not be used for insemination for at least one year, allowing “adequate time for grieving and counseling.” As a deathcare professional, you can provide resources to help families through the grieving process — no matter whether they are grieving the loss of their loved one … or of their opportunity to have children with the deceased.