Ralph M. Tsong
What is Posthumous Reproduction?
Updated: May 8
Posthumous reproduction uses a deceased person’s gametes (egg or sperm) and assisted reproductive technology to produce a child. In this article, we are going to breakdown the two types of posthumous reproduction.
The first type of posthumous reproduction occurs when the deceased party passes down the gametes to another to have a baby.
Just like people will plan for what happens to their possessions after their death, individuals who have retrieved and stored sperm, eggs or embryos can list their wishes with what happens to their stored gametes after they pass away. This can be done through a will or a testamentary document, or through the IVF clinic’s consent forms that stipulate the disposition of gametes and embryos after the death of one or both individuals who contributed the gametes.
There are also cases where a party left instructions that his or her gametes should not be used after death, but in some circumstances, it may be the only chance of the surviving partner to have a child that is biologically related to the deceased partner. In cases like this, the expressed wishes of the deceased prevails over the survivor's interest in having a biologically related child. The American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) recommends that medical providers do not allow posthumous use of gametes if there is evidence the deceased party did not want it.
What about situations where there is no explicit or written evidence of the wishes of the deceased regarding posthumous reproduction? In cases like this, providers must determine the desires of the decedent and first determine whether there is a clear record of the wishes of the deceased before complying with requests of the living to use the deceased’s frozen gametes or harvest gametes postmortem. The ASRM discourages posthumous assisted reproduction without clear evidence that it would be supported by the decedent’s wishes.
The second type happens when the gametes are retrieved from the deceased after their death.
In contrast to the first type where the gametes are already retrieved, the second type requires retrieving the gametes after the person's death, as the gametes were not stored prior to death. In some cases, the courts have allowed parents to retrieve gametes from their deceased children even without a will or advanced directive. Once the parents retrieve the gametes, they are free to use them as their own without any consent from the deceased. Here are two examples.
In February 2019, a 21-year-old Westpoint cadet named Peter Zhu died following a skiing accident in New York. His parents told a court that they wanted to keep the possibility of using the sperm to eventually have children that would be genetically related to Peter.
In their petition, Peter’s parents argued they were trying to uphold their son’s wishes, “to help Peter realize this dream of bringing a child into the world.” They argued because of China’s one-child policy, Peter ended up the only male in his family’s generation, meaning only he could “carry on our family’s lineage.” The court granted his parents’ petition because Peter had made statements that he wanted to have three children, and this showed “presumed intent" to have children. Peter’s sperm was retrieved from his body and stored at a sperm bank.
In another case, a Texas probate judge granted the request of Nikolas Evans’ mother to harvest his sperm in 2009. Nikolas Evans had talked about how much he wanted to have a child, but the 21-year-old died after he was attacked trying to catch a bus ride home.
Marissa Evans, the mother of Nikolas, had to go to court to get permission to harvest his sperm, and the judge granted her wish, ordering the county medical examiner's office to keep her son's body chilled and retrieval of his sperm.
Marissa’s decision to seek a court order to preserve her son’s sperm attracted news coverage which she used to seek out surrogates around the world. When IVF treatments did not result in a live birth, she felt that she had let her son down even in death. Nikolas’s case is an example that a parent’s intentions to keep a child’s memory alive through posthumous reproduction may not be successful.
According to the ASRM, posthumous gamete retrieval or use for reproductive purposes is ethically justifiable if the deceased has authorized the procedure in writing. Embryo use is also justifiable with such documentation. Courts have ruled more expansively. It is very important for a parent or partner to seek counseling prior to deciding on posthumous reproduction.
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This article is for informational purposes only and should not be relied upon without additional research or consulting an attorney. This article is not legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship with the reader.