Scientists should be allowed to harvest sperm from dead donors, according to a new feature article published last week in the Journal of Medical Ethics.
The new essay – written by UK-based ethicists Dr Nathan Hodson (University of Leicester) and Dr Joshua Parker (Manchester's Wythenshawe Hospital) – defends an opt-in system of deceased sperm donation, whereby men would “[indicate] during life that they have a preference to donate sperm after death”. “Following death”, the authors stipulate, “sperm [would be] extracted, stored in fertility clinics and made available to those requiring donor sperm”.
Currently, doctors can collect sperm after death either through electrical stimulation of the prostate gland or surgery. Evidence suggests that sperm harvested from men who have died can still result in viable pregnancies and healthy children, even when retrieved up to 48 hours after death has occurred.
Yet the law surrounding deceased sperm donation is complex, and many people have an intuitive distaste for the idea of harvesting reproductive material from deceased persons.
But the authors of the new JME article argue that sperm donation is not only “technologically feasible” but also “ethically permissible”.
They note that that sperm procurement from deceased donors involves fewer risks to donors than live kidney donation:
“Gamete donation after death parallels kidney donation by offering the same benefits as donation in life with fewer drawbacks, thereby both incentivising men to donate and providing greater opportunity to fulfil some of their reproductive and altruistic desires. This makes voluntary postmortem sperm donation an attractive addition to living donation.”
The authors acknowledge that children conceived using dead-donor sperm will ipso facto be deprived of a relationship with their biological father. They do not, however, see this as a major problem: “There is no obvious reason to assume that [children of dead donors] would…be harmed by wanting a relationship they cannot have”.
Importantly, the main motivation for the article is that there is a massive shortage of donor sperm in the UK. The authors argue that the benefits of deceased donation could be immense in this regard:
“…it is important to secure a reliable source of sperm, sufficient to meet requirements… deceased donors offer an appealing and ethically acceptable alternative means of bolstering sperm supplies”.
Allan Pacey, professor of andrology at Sheffield University, said that while the article was well argued, he “strongly disagreed” with it.
“Given the distance we have travelled in terms of recruiting donors who are willing to be identified to donor-conceived people, it feels like a backward step to then recruit donors who are dead and therefore they will never have the opportunity to meet”.
Xavier Symons is deputy editor of BioEdge