A court has allowed doctors to retrieve sperm from the body of a brain-damaged West Point cadet so that his family can have a male heir.
Peter Zhu, 21, suffered a broken spine in a skiing accident at West Point, the United States military academy in upstate New York, on February 23. A few days later, doctors declared that he was “brain-dead”. As an organ donor, Zhu was to be kept alive until the afternoon of March 1. His parents applied for a court order on the morning of same day to retrieve his sperm.
“In addition to retrieving Peter’s organs to donate to others in need, we are seeking to retrieve sperm from Peter’s body in order to preserve Peter’s reproductive genetic material,” his parents declared in a court filing. “Without obtaining sperm from Peter’s body, we will never be able to help Peter realize this dream of bringing a child into the world.”
His parents also said that retrieval was needed for “deeply personal cultural reasons.” Peter was the only male in his generation. His father’s brothers had daughters and were not permitted to have more children under China’s one-child policy. Peter was the only one who could carry on the family name. “When Peter was born, his grandfather cried tears of joy that a son was born to carry on our family’s name,” his parents declared. “Peter took this role very seriously, and fully intended to carry on our family’s lineage through children of his own.”
Although the State Supreme Court and the doctors quickly agreed to the parents’ request, the case raises knotty ethical issues.
"It's highly controversial because we're not getting a request from a wife or a longstanding girlfriend," commented bioethicist Art Caplan. “Normally your parents don't get to decide when you reproduce."
In fact, in an ethics guidance issued last year the American Society for Reproductive Medicine declared that parents should not be allowed to retrieve sperm. “In the absence of written instructions from the decedent, programs that are open to considering requests for posthumous gamete procurement or reproduction from surviving spouses or life partners should decline requests for such services from other individuals.” The desires of parents do not give them an ethical claim to their child's gametes, it said.
"Medicine is respectful of culture," Caplan said. "But saying you want to continue the family line is a rationale that I think some doctors and medical teams would not accept. You can respect that idea, but you can say, too, 'Look we don't force people to reproduce to continue the family line, unless they're like the Queen of England and they're looking for an heir.'"
Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge.
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