The Ethics of Postmortem Parenthood

Posted on October 1, 2013


As Mikaela Conley reports in Medpage Today:  in Israel, a 17-year-old traffic accident victim’s family obtained a court order to remove and freeze her eggs before taking her off life support, but judges have declined the family’s petition to have the eggs fertilized with donated sperm until the family can prove that their deceased daughter would have wanted children.  That isn’t the right question, however.  As Ms. Conley reports:

“Ethically, the important issue is not whether the woman would have wanted children,” said Rosamond Rhodes, director of bioethics education at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. “Regardless of the reproductive possibilities, she will not be around to have the child [or] children.”  Instead, Rhodes said the critical issue is whether Chen would have wanted her biological children to come to life after she was dead.  “This question is rarely considered by anyone,” said Rhodes. “People can have strong negative feelings about this possibility — it can sound really yucky.  And many people would not want others, including their own parents, to raise their biological child.”

I am in complete and total agreement with Ms. Rhodes.  This discussion is already well-established when it comes to conceiving  children with sperm extracted from dead men, though the Israeli case may be one of the first in the world of a family harvesting a dead woman’s eggs.  It’s not just a matter of whether  a person would have wanted to be a parent in life, and it’s more than a matter of whether a person would have wanted their child conceived after their own death.   From Ms. Conley’s article about the young girl in the Israeli case:

“Using the gametes of a dead child to create another child creates a troubling precedent,” said Laurie Zoloth, director of the Center for Bioethics, Science and Society at Northwestern University. “In a world in which thousands of children are lost and starving, the use of medical technology for this end raises other questions about the just use of shared resources.  The fact that sperm has been used this way, for the same tragic reasons, is not an ethical justification.”

Now that is something that I heartily agree with.  In the wake of a loved one’s death, it’s natural to want to hold on to a living part of them, to extend their lives through the offspring which might still be possible with today’s technology.  Yes, it’s natural to want that.  It’s NOT natural to actually do it.

It seems to me that Ms. Zoloth’s reservations can also apply to fertility treatments in general.  In an overpopulated world with so many existing children in dire straits, it seems to me the height of arrogance and selfishness to insist on creating our own biological children by any means and at any expense necessary.  For what purpose, exactly?  Sure, you can talk about the “biological drive to reproduce,” but that’s not really what this is about.  Real parenting is not about passing on your genes; how many deadbeat dads do we hear about, who have managed to pass on quite a lot of copies of their genes, but have zero interest in actually supporting and raising those children?  That’s not parenthood, that’s breeding.

What fertility treatments and postmortem conception of a child have in common (aside from their artificial nature)  is that on some very fundamental level, the child is not conceived for his own sake, but for the sake of the surviving adults involved.   It is a conscious choice, generally made in the absence of one of the parents, to intentionally create a child who arrives in this world already orphaned.  We all know that life is uncertain and children lose parents every day the world over, but it isn’t something most of us would choose for our kids.  It just seems to me that the absence of one parent, and the expectations invested in the child by the other, are very large emotional burdens misplaced on a very small child.


Cover image: tattoo by artist Mason Williams, featured at