Men in the UK may soon be able to donate their sperm after death, just like other organs

BSIP / ContributorSperm can be extracted up to 36 hours after death and then frozen.
  • People should be able to donate sperm after death in the UK, according to a group of bioethicists’ proposal in the Journal of Medical Ethics.
  • The option would relieve pain for people struggling with infertility, and help address a shortage of sperm donors in the UK, the authors argue.
  • But posthumous sperm donation raises a set of ethical questions, according to Arthur Caplan, professor of bioethics at New York University who has studied the process in the US for decades.
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The United Kingdom is currently facing a shortage of donor sperm, leading to over 7,000 samples of sperm being imported every year.

A possible solution is to allow people to give their consent to donate sperm after death in the same way they do to donate organs, a group of bioethicists wrote in a new review published in the Journal of Medical Ethics.

Sperm donations, which ideally come from living men, can be used to help people who don’t have access to viable sperm get pregnant, like same-sex couples, single people, and couples where a partner is dealing with male infertility.

But in the UK, where children conceived with donor sperm are allowed to ask for their biological dad’s name, age, and last known address when they turn 18, men are reluctant to donate, at least while they’re alive.

Allowing men to give their consent for strangers to use their sperm posthumously, however, can relieve pain for people with infertility issues and act as a “life-enhancing transplant” in the same way organs can be used to save lives, the authors argued.

However, according to Arthur Caplan, a professor of bioethics at New York University, the possible policy opens up a series of ethical questions that need to be answered, like how many times a single person’s sperm can be used to create a child, who can use the sperm, and whether some men may not realise they’re consenting to letting their DNA live on since Wales and Scottland have an “opt-out,” rather than opt-in, organ donation policy.

Sperm donorbluecinema / GettyIn the UK, live sperm donors must be comfortable with the prospect that their biological children will seek them out when they turn 18.

In the US, posthumous sperm donation has raised its own set of ethical questions

In the US, where sperm donors can remain anonymous and are relatively well-compensated, there’s no shortage of sperm from live donors.

Still, post-death sperm donation, which involves extracting sperm from the body up to 36 hours after death and then freezing it, has existed in the US for decades as an option for family members or people who had a relationship with the donor before they died to enable the deceased person’s DNA to be carried on.

In fact, the first posthumous sperm donation was conducted in 1980 when a woman’s husband wanted to use his sperm after he died unexpectedly, Caplan said.

According to Caplan, who has studied the ethics of posthumous sperm donation in the US for over 20 years, the grief involved makes it important to have rules as to how a person’s sperm is used after death.

Knowing the donor before death, understanding the reason a person would want to donate their sperm, and establishing a waiting period to work through grief before deciding whether or not to use the sperm are all boundaries Caplan believes a donor should establish before they die.

“When somebody dies, it’s often the case that somebody wants to replace them, but that feeling passes as they adapt to grief and death,” Caplan said.

Even in the UK, where these emotional issues would likely be non-issues when dealing with stranger sperm, informed consent is still the most important factor in deciding whether or not a deceased person’s sexual material – like eggs or sperm – can be used, according to Caplan.

“Morally, I think one of the worst things you can do to someone is replicate them without their consent,” Caplan said. “The way to solve that is to make sure everybody has the opportunity to fill out an advanced directive or organ donor card that includes that new area of sperm and egg donation.”

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