I haven’t been posting since work is busy and it’s pre-Purim season so there’ s a lot of running around with preparations. However, I spotted an interesting article this morning by Michelle Goldberg in The Tablet, a great online magazine, which I’ll post, without lengthy comment, at least for now.
It’s about the debate in Israel to allow parents to use frozen sperm from a deceased son to hire a surrogate mother in order to have grandchildren. The debate takes a particularly Israeli colour, both because of the highly pro-natal (meaning: we love kids) nature of the society, the all-too common reality of young men losing their lives in army service, and highly-developed medical and reproductive technologies.
The full article can be found here, and below is segment of the article which touches on the issues at stake:
Creating children from the sperm of the dead adds further philosophical complexity to the tangle of issues around IVF. When must tragedy be accepted instead of combated with the full arsenal of our technology? Who gets to decide? “Where we are with reproductive technologies is a result of the fact that we have refused to accept infertility as a fact,” says Vardit Ravitsky, an Israeli-born assistant professor in the Bioethics Programs at the Université de Montréal Faculty of Medicine. “Today, the idea that I have a right to have a genetic child is much more accepted than in the past. To extend that one generation to genetic grandchildren maybe is not that farfetched.”
Ravitsky was a participant in the Israeli Ministry of Justice discussions that led to the country’s guidelines on posthumous reproduction, issued in 2003. Those guidelines were notable for allowing a dead man’s wife or partner to access his sperm as long as he didn’t leave explicit instructions to the contrary. “This notion of presumed consent, that we can assume that a man would want to have genetic children after his death, that was really pushing the envelope at the time in comparison with other countries,” says Ravitsky. But the ministry refused to allow a man’s mother or father similar access, concluding that parents have no legal standing regarding their children’s fertility, “[n]ot in their lifetime, and certainly not when they are dead.”
For years, Rosenblum, the Ben-Yaakovs’ lawyer, has been fighting to give bereaved parents the power that the guidelines denied them. In 2001, she campaigned for the army to adopt what she called a biological will, offering soldiers the option of freezing their sperm or eggs in order to see their lineage continue in the event of their death. Though the army rejected the idea, it received media attention. Then, one night the following year, Rosenblum got a phone call from a hysterical woman. Her son, 19-year-old Keivan Cohen, had just been killed by a sniper in Gaza. His mother wanted the hospital to save his sperm, which can survive for 72 hours after death. She’d read about Rosenblum and begged for her help. Rosenblum rushed to file an affidavit and succeeded in having the boy’s sperm extracted.
Through a newspaper ad, Cohen’s parents found a woman who was planning on becoming a single mother and who liked the ideas of using a known donor and also of ensuring that her baby would have supportive grandparents. But with no written instructions from Cohen, the hospital where his sperm was stored refused to release it. A long legal battle ensued, until, in 2007, a Tel Aviv court ruled in his family’s favor.
So far, the potential mother’s IVF treatments have not been successful, though attempts are ongoing. But Rosenblum retains an almost giddy faith in the ability of technology to triumph over cruelties of nature and fate. Speaking of Cohen’s mother, she says, “No psychiatrist can help this kind of a woman to recover from the loss of her son. But this is giving a new hope. It’s unbelievable. It brings her back to life.”
Of course, there’s something unsettling in this desire to create a child to compensate for the loss of another. Many of our earliest and our most enduring myths warn against the hubristic human desire to transcend the forces of life and death. On a practical level, if posthumous reproduction and a right to grandparenthood become common, they could create intolerable pressure on surviving partners, who might feel obliged to bear a dead man’s children rather than start a new life with a new husband or boyfriend. There’s already been one case, says Ravitsky, in which the partner and parents of a deceased man went together to access his sperm and “the medical team had the impression that the young woman was being pressured.” The woman eventually decided not to go through with it, but others might not be strong enough to say no, whatever their own doubts.