By Nathan Hodson and Joshua Parker
Of all the revolutionary advances provided by artificial reproductive techniques, few would have imagined that it would allow men to have their sperm removed after death and used to successfully produce offspring. Yet recent cases show that it is possible and apparently safe. In these cases it is the loved ones of the man who has died who have been able to use his sperm – but what if other people could benefit too? Post-mortem sperm donation could facilitate this. We decided to explore this possibility in our paper: The ethical case for non-directed post-mortem sperm donation. Yes, it is technically possible for a man’s sperm to be extracted after his death and made available to strangers seeking sperm donors, but would it be ethical?
There is a shortage of donor sperm in the UK. Various explanations for this exist and attempts have been made to increase donations from living men, however the gap remains and may be worsening. But even if there was surplus donor sperm, the need goes beyond quantity: people using donor sperm also desire donors with certain characteristics, and this is often particularly important to people from minority groups. The use of sperm donated after death has the potential to help those wishing to access donor sperm by increasing both the quantity and diversity of the sperm donor pool. Having a donor who has died might even be an advantage if you require donor sperm, something that is currently unaccommodated.
There are a number of downsides to donating sperm in life: it is intrusive, time consuming and carries future uncertainty. Yet donated sperm can do a lot of good and men who aim to help others may be torn between these downsides and their altruistic desires. In the cost-benefit analysis performed by men deciding whether to donate sperm in life, most judge the burdens too great. Yet, they still, we suspect, would like to help those in need if possible. And so we believe that men would find the prospect of being able to donate sperm after death acceptable and perhaps desirable. Indeed, many people want their tissues to benefit others when they’re no longer of use to them, like after death. Having the opportunity to donate sperm after death allows men to fulfil their altruistic desires without having to navigate the demands of living donation.
In the paper, we weren’t trying to outline and defend a specific policy but to explore in broad strokes whether a system of voluntary sperm donation after death could be ethical. Safeguards would be needed whatever the system, some of which could be adapted from existing polices for tissue and organ donation. Moreover, it is important to explore the wider implications of this for any future child, the donor’s family and society generally. In our paper, we argued that none of these provide an insurmountable challenge to the idea of consensual non-directive post-mortem sperm donation.
Post-mortem sperm donation has the unique combination of involving both the death of the donor and donation of reproductive material. However, this means it also shares elements with other kinds of donation and as such might shed new light on these discussions, like family veto and donor anonymity. Beyond its theoretical implications for on-going debates sperm donation after death may also have practical implications for sperm donation and access to donor sperm, for example sperm sharing arrangements.
As it remains the case that people experiencing unwanted sub-fertility rely on cells donated by others to reproduce, there will be a need to think creatively about how to ensure enough supply to meet demand. This is especially true of eggs, though the technology does not (yet) exist to facilitate donation after death for use in ARTs. Whilst a system of ‘altruistic’ post-mortem sperm donation may take some years to develop the ethical arguments presented in our paper suggest that the prospect has implications both for policy regarding the bodies of dead men and for the way we understand reproductive donation.
‘The ethical case for non-directed post-mortem sperm donation‘ is published in the Journal of Medical Ethics.
Nathan Hodson and Joshua Parker declare no conflicts of interest.