Is Sperm Donation After Death Morally Permissible?

Peter Russell

January 21, 2020

A fertility expert said he was "uncomfortable" with the idea that men in the UK should be able to donate their sperm after death.

The proposal was advanced as not only technically feasible, but "morally permissible" in an analysis published online in the Journal of Medical Ethics .

The authors, Dr Nathan Hodson, and Dr Joshua Parker of, respectively, the University of Leicester, and Wythenshawe Hospital, Manchester, argued that it could help address the increasing shortage of donor sperm in the UK.

Argument for Moral Acceptance

They wrote: "If it is morally acceptable that individuals can donate their tissues to relieve the suffering of others in 'life enhancing transplants' for diseases, we see no reason this cannot be extended to other forms of suffering like infertility, which may or may not also be considered a disease."

Sperm donation after death would also help to increase diversity of supply, which may be a particular issue for certain ethnicities, they added.

Sperm harvesting after death has been technically possible for many years, either from electroejaculation or from surgical methods. Following collection, sperm is cryopreserved until use.

There is also evidence that sperm retrieved from dead men can result in viable pregnancies and healthy children, even when retrieved 48 hours after death.

Altruism, procreation and genetic parenthood, and financial gain are listed among reasons why men decide to donate sperm. However, according to the authors, sperm donation remains uncommon among British men.

Possible reasons include loss of donor anonymity, and the complexity of donation that could last for many months.

'Fewer Drawbacks'

Gamete donation after death parallels kidney donation by offering the same benefits as donation in life with fewer drawbacks, the authors wrote, thereby both incentivising men to donate and providing greater opportunity to fulfil some of their reproductive and altruistic desires.

Concerns about the possible transmission of 'unhealthy' genes could be addressed by carrying out health checks on the donor and the sperm, the authors said.

Also, families could veto a donation, just as they can do for solid organs. However, they could derive comfort from knowing their loved one is 'living on' through the donation.

'A Backward Step'

The authors stated that there was no evidence comparing the wellbeing

of children conceived via the sperm of dead donors and living donors. However, Allan Pacey, professor of andrology at the University of Sheffield, said that, while the paper was well argued, he "strongly" disagreed with its conclusions.

"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."

He added, in a statement to the Science Media Centre: "The practicalities of posthumous sperm extraction and its use does not concern me, as these are fairly routine techniques. But I do feel very uncomfortable with the idea.

"I’d much rather that we invested our energy in trying to recruit younger, healthy, willing donors who stand a good chance of being alive when the donor conceived person starts to become curious about them, and would have the opportunity to make contact with them without the aid of a spiritualist."

Sarah Norcross, director of the Progress Educational Trust, commented: "The question of whether sperm should be added to the list of tissues donated after death is a challenging one.

"Further discussion is needed to understand whether people who need to use donor sperm would even want to use the sperm of a deceased donor.

"It is also vital to seek the opinions of donor-conceived people about what they think the impact would be of never being able to meet the donor."

Prof Pacey is chairman of the advisory committee of the UK National External Quality Assurance Schemes in Andrology, editor-in-chief of Human Fertility and Trustee of the Progress Educational Trust (all unpaid). He has also undertaken recent consultancy work for Cryos, MereoBiopharma Group, TwentySix03, Pharmasure, (with all monies going to University of Sheffield).

Sarah Norcross works for the Progress Educational Trust, a charity that works to improve choices for people with infertility and genetic conditions.


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