Collecting Sperm From a Dead Man’s Simple. The Ethical Issues Are Not.

About the ethical and legal issues surrounding post-mortem sperm collection.

From a technical point of view, it's not that complicated, and there are a few ways to do it. Since the donor has already died, there's no anesthesia required, for one thing. The key is to harvest the sperm as soon as possible after death, preferably within 24-36 hours. The sperm doesn't need to be lively, just alive.

  • If this seems creepy to you, the intent is anything but. When a couple is planning on having children but the man dies before that happens, it's typically love that drives a mate's desired to harvest the deceased's sperm and go ahead and give birth to the child, or children, they'd been planning. On occasion, it's a dead man's parents hoping to give a beloved son a sort of second pass at life.

    It was in the late 1970s that Los Angeles urologist Cappy Rothman got his first request for a post-mortem sperm harvest, from the chief resident of surgery at UCLA who asked him to extract the sperm from a prominent politician's son who had just perished in a car crash. The first successful birth from post-mortem sperm extraction, though, wasn’t until in 1980. The baby’s name was “Brandalynn.”

    The legal status of children born this way is almost as interesting and unsettled as the status of the sperm itself. While a court ruled in Vernoff vs. Astrue that Brandalynn wasn't entitled to survivor's social security benefits from her father, an Arizona court ruled in another case that children conceived after their father's death were indeed eligible for benefits.

    There are far more questions surrounding who owns the sperm, and in fact, what it even legally is. Courts have recently endowed sperm with a higher legal status than organs, blood marrow, or blood, thanks to its potential to create life. 

    Rothman is now medical director of a clinic that offers post-mortem extraction, California Cryobank, which has performed close to 200 such extractions, with an average of about nine per year. There are many other places that provide the service, but its availability from place to place or even institution to institution is about as inconsistent as possible. There are unofficial guidelines developed by Cornell’s urology department that many doctors use, but legally, it’s a mess.

  • Elena Pavlovich
  • To begin with, the fertility industry altogether is largely unregulated. Then, with a stunning array of deeply felt opinions regarding the practice, and not much legal precedent, it’s no surprise that court rulings allowing and banning post-mortem sperm collection have been all over the map. At one edge, there’s the wife who wants to finish creating a family she and her husband intended to have, while at the other are those who believe that post-mortem extraction unforgivably violates the dead. There are many shadings of opinion view in-between, with questions of legal authority to request a collection, timing, use of the extracted sperm, and on and on. Martin Bastuba, of Male Fertility & Sexual Medicine Specialists in San Diego told The Atlantic that, “There are no specific rules. Most of the laws on the books were written before this technology really existed.”

    Added into the confusion is the philosophical disagreement over whose wishes are most important, the deceased or his survivors? It’s an old question that’s become freshly relevant with medical technology’s introduction of new and sometimes troubling possibilities. On one side, if you’re dead can you be harmed if your wishes are overruled? On the other, we care about what happens after we die—to ourselves, our loved ones, and our possessions—and have a general agreement with others to respect both parties’ wishes. Of course, a couple can avoid this question by legally documenting their wishes in the event of tragedy. 

    It must be heartbreaking to be struggling with these issues at arguably the worst time in a survivor’s life. It’s a troubling reminder of how our ethical and legal constructs are struggling to keep up with advancing medical technology.



  • Headline image: Antonio Guillem
  • Should you defend the free speech rights of neo-Nazis?

    Former president of the ACLU Nadine Strossen discusses whether our society should always defend free speech rights, even for groups who would oppose such rights.

    Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
    • Former ACLU president Nadine Strossen understands that protecting free speech rights isn't always a straightforward proposition.
    • In this video, Strossen describes the reasoning behind why the ACLU defended the free speech rights of neo-Nazis in Skokie, Illinois, 1977.
    • The opinions expressed in this video do not necessarily reflect the views of the Charles Koch Foundation, which encourages the expression of diverse viewpoints within a culture of civil discourse and mutual respect.
    Keep reading Show less

    Become an intellectual explorer: Master the art of conversation

    Want to be smarter than you were yesterday? Learn to have better conversations using these 3 design principles.

    Sponsored by the Institute for Humane Studies
    • What is a great conversation? They are the ones that leave us feeling smarter or more curious, with a sense that we have discovered something, understood something about another person, or have been challenged.
    • There are 3 design principles that lead to great conversations: humility, critical thinking, and sympathetic listening.
    • Critical thinking is the celebrated cornerstone of liberalism, but next time you're in a challenging and rewarding conversation, try to engage sympathetic listening too. Understanding why another intelligent person holds ideas that are at odds with your own is often more enlightening than merely hunting for logic errors.
    Keep reading Show less

    New alternative to Trump's wall would create jobs, renewable energy, and increase border security

    A consortium of scientists and engineers have proposed that the U.S. and Mexico build a series of guarded solar, wind, natural gas and desalination facilities along the entirety of the border.

    Credit: Purdue University photo/Jorge Castillo Quiñones
    Politics & Current Affairs
    • The proposal was recently presented to several U.S. members of Congress.
    • The plan still calls for border security, considering all of the facilities along the border would be guarded and connected by physical barriers.
    • It's undoubtedly an expensive and complicated proposal, but the team argues that border regions are ideal spots for wind and solar energy, and that they could use the jobs and fresh water the energy park would create.
    Keep reading Show less

    Belly fat: Gut bacteria checks could lead to personalized diets

    The reason one diet does not suit all may be found in our guts.

    Media for Medical / Getty Images
    Surprising Science
    • New research shows that there's no one diet that works for everyone.
    • Instead, gut bacteria may hold the key to personalized diet plans.
    • A future doctor may check gut bacteria to offer diet advice.
    Keep reading Show less