A new study argues that men should be allowed to donate sperm to strangers after their death.
The January 20 study in the Journal of Medical Ethics raises similarities to organ donation, which allows people to donate life-saving tissue to those in need of transplants. “If it is morally acceptable that individuals can donate their tissues to relieve the suffering of others in ‘life-enhancing transplants’ for diseases,” wrote the study authors, “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.”
The study suggests that allowing men to donate after death would help address the U.K. sperm donor shortage: between 2011 and 2013, the average number of newly-registered sperm donors per year was 586 (an increase of about 300 from 2004). But a portion of that increase also reflects donations used directly by men’s partners, not strangers.
Postmortem sperm can be collected after death through surgery (by extracting sperm through a cut in the scrotum) or electroejaculation, a procedure that delivers electric shocks to the prostate and stimulates ejaculation. Collected sperm would be cryopreserved in fertility clinics and thawed when ready for use.
“Sperm harvesting after death has been technically possible for many years, and there is evidence that it can be used in reproduction,” wrote the study authors. “Case series have demonstrated that sperm retrieved from dead men can result in a viable pregnancies and healthy children, even when retrieved 48 hours after death.”
Study co-author Joshua Parker, an education fellow in ethics and law at Wythenshawe Hospital in Manchester, England, tells Yahoo Lifestyle: “We’re suggesting that men could voluntarily donate their sperm to fertility clinics to alleviate pain for those suffering from infertility. But it raises ethical questions — what preferences should people have when choosing donors? What’s the psychological impact on a child knowing that he or she was born from a deceased donor? And how does postmortem sperm donation affect grieving families and their relationship with a potential child?”
Organ transplants benefit recipients with conditions that are life-threatening or “life-enhancing,” says the study, pointing to corneal transplants as an example of the latter. “Infertility is not life-threatening, however,” wrote the authors. “There is also debate over whether infertility is a disease, which we cannot settle here and so will set aside. Nevertheless, as we argue below, infertility certainly causes suffering, some of which can be ameliorated by access to donor sperm....”
Standards for postmortem sperm donations should equal those applied to living donations, says Parker, with quality of sperm being a high priority. “However, that speaks to the quality of consent,” he adds. “Men would need to be aware of the possibility that their donations may not result in a pregnancy after they die.”
A spokesperson from the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority, which regulates fertility clinics in the U.K., did not return Yahoo Lifestyle’s request for comment. A spokesperson told CNN that donors must be medically screened, counseled and give consent. "None of these requirements could be satisfied if donation was only undertaken after death. Essentially, this means that harvesting sperm from a donor after death is currently illegal," the spokesperson said.
Some might feel that using sperm from a dead person is disturbing, a notion acknowledged by Parker. “But we don’t decide what’s right or wrong based on that gut reaction,” he tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Medical ethics are determined by reason, argument and evidence — not whether we feel sick about it.”
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