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Ethics and morality

We conclude this two-part article on a matter of serious ethical relativism. By Scott Trueman

This second article concerns the contentious and emotive issue of harvesting sperm from deceased males and then using the same to bring about the birth of a child. In the last article (May) we discussed the most recent legal litigation in this area.

This month’s article concentrates on some of the ethical dimensions of the posthumous practice (PMSR). Due to brevity, not all arguments and counter-arguments can be canvassed.

An oft-cited argument against using PMSR is that a child born posthumously without a living father and raised by only one parent will be adversely affected socially, economically and psychologically.

The gist of this argument is that children who spend their entire childhood living with their married biological parents experience, on average, fewer academic, behavioural and social problems during both childhood and adulthood. There are studies in support of, and against, this view.

Despite evidence to the contrary, many children in single-parent homes have thrived. Others argue that raising a child in a single parent household is harmful to the child. What then is meant by “harm”? One definition is that persons are harmed only if they are worse off than they otherwise would have been.

In claiming PMSR harms the children who are brought into being, therefore, amounts to saying that the children are worse off than they would have been if they had not been created. Many readers will see problems with such a statement. Some will say that it fails to make sense because it tries to compare nonexistence with something that exists. Others will claim that it makes sense but is false.

Some experts express concern about the stigma of how the child was conceived, the child’s difficulty in coming to terms with legitimacy, and the idea that the child may have been conceived as a replacement for the dead parent. A strong visceral response of, how could the child live with the circumstances of its birth, is difficult to answer without a level of circulatory in reasoning. The child needs to be born for it to know whether they are angry, embarrassed, disgusted, or happy about their birth, or would have preferred not to have been born. No one will know unless they are born.

This dilemma has on many occasions been subject to judicial exasperation when the order for retrieval is being made as to what, and does one know, what is in the best interests of the child, if it is not yet conceived.

Another argument of opponents is that PMSR should only be granted if the woman was married to the deceased donor at the time of his death. The argument here is that marriage facilitates a presumption that the deceased would have consented to having children. A related argument is that PMSR should not be permitted because the finality of death intervenes in any potential for reproduction; death means that the corporeal bond between husband and wife is broken, and any conception is consequently unnatural. There is a ‘natural’ limit in reproductive capacity that is intrinsic to being human, and to try to extend this limit is ‘unnatural’.

Due to sperm having to be harvested within 24 hours of death some argue that it is a far too difficult time for a loved one to make a rational decision. Even with consent, how strongly should we consider a man’s stated desire to produce offspring? While the strength of this desire is clearly evident in many discussions of infertility, it is also true that the desires of many infertile couples can be met through adoption. Thus, the use of requested technology is not always needed to satisfy such desires, and some would say the availability of such alternatives make the use of technology unjustified.

A different objection to PMSR relates to society having immense respect for the sanctity of a dead body and some suggest that PMSR represents a mutilation of the dead attributable to a lack of respect. This view is “strengthened” when the requesting party is seeking the sperm without having a solid conviction that she will in fact use it to conceive a child.

In moments of unbelievable grief, the widow/ partner may think that PMSR is a great idea because she may be able to conceive a child with her deceased husband/ partner several years down the track. If the widow/ partner later decides not to use the sperm to conceive, her dead husband’s/ partner’s corpse would have been violated for no other reason than to give her reproductive peace of mind. It has been a pointless invasion of the corpse (body).

Another area of debate is the strong societal mandate to show respect against trespass and mutilation of a corpse. Others argue that this respect is not inviolable and point to organ retrievals.

A rejoinder argument is that an autopsy or organ retrieval, while having the same immediate consequences for the corpse, does not in comparison for the deceased or his family. Sperm retrieval has major consequences for his family and his own legacy.

The difference between an autopsy and organ retrieval on the one hand, and sperm retrieval on the other, is the giving of benefit to others. Requesting sperm retrieval after death is not the same; in fact it is not giving at all – it is instead taking, because its aim is to benefit the person making the request. Retrieval of organs after death is different in that the family who is giving consent is altruistically giving the organs for someone else’s benefit. The parents or woman who request sperm retrieval after death, without the explicit consent of the dead man, are making a request for their own benefit.

There are endless legitimate and rational reasons why a woman might use PMSR to conceive a child. A widow or female partner may believe that using her deceased husband’s/ partner`s sperm would be a way to pay tribute to him. A woman may believe that conceiving posthumously may help her cope with the loss of her husband/partner because he would live on through the child. A woman who wants to bear a child might have religious reasons for wanting to use only her husband’s sperm and might view artificial insemination using donor sperm as “an adulterous act”.

Another important reason for choosing PMSR is that a woman might desire to know the genetic origins of [her] child opposed to using donor sperm or adopting a child. Due to this genetic connection, the child may have more peace of mind in knowing that he or she was conceived from a loving relationship rather than from an unknown sperm donor. Finally, it may accord with the very wishes of the deceased.

The reality of PMSR is that there cannot be any agreed ethical or moral position which is acceptable to all. We might “simply” have to rely on ethical relativism that “what’s right for you is not always right for me.”

Scott Trueman is a lecturer in the school of nursing, midwifery and nutrition at James Cook University.

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