I had flagged this story from Israel last month, meaning to write about it. As with many things in life, I didn’t get around to it. But now there’s this thoughtful commentary on the story from Tablet Magazine, so on the “better late than never” theory, here we go.
The underlying story is sad but somewhat familiar. (I’ve linked to some similar posts, but the Haaretz story itself recounts other similar occurances.) Ohad Ben-Yaakov was a 27 year old Israeli man. He was fatally injured in a work accident in September. He died after being in a coma for two-weeks.
At the time of his death, Ben-Yaakov was single and had not given any thought, as far as we can tell, to becoming a parent. But his parents wanted to preserve the possibility of having a grandchild and so they sought and obtained a court order directing doctors to harvest sperm from their son’s body before he died. Now the question is whether they can use his sperm to impregnate a woman in order that she might have a child who would be their genetic grandchild.
The earlier posts I linked to consider some of the issues raised here. But the Tablet article puts the story in a larger context. Israelis are aggressive consumers of ART. (The article discusses a range of possible reasons for this.) One striking example is that there is insurance coverage for unlimited IVF, up the birth of two live children.
Now we all know that ART doesn’t always involve using one’s own DNA–that’s the whole thing about donor gametes. But a lot of ART (ICSI, for instance) is aimed at exactly that. And the desire to use the harvested sperm here is clearly another instance of ART driven by an attachment to DNA.
The article from Tablet generalizes about ART use in Israel. That means it considers ART driven by attachment to DNA (posthumous use of gametes, for instance) together with ART that isn’t driven by attachment to DNA (at least some IVF).
It makes sense to consider all ART together for some purposes. As Tablet notes:
[s]ome feminists and scholars, though, are troubled by Israel’s culture of boundary-pushing reproductive technology. Quite aside from the issue of postmortem fatherhood, the combination of state subsidies and intense pressure to have children can lead infertile Israeli women to endure many more IVF attempts than they might elsewhere. Whereas women in the United States might undergo several cycles, says Wendy Chavkin, a professor at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, “Israel is the only place I know of where people can have 17,” although no one knows the long-term effects of such treatment on a woman’s body.
. . .“It used to be, God forbid you were infertile, it was sad and terrible and tragic, but you came to terms with it,” says Susan Martha Kahn, a Harvard anthropologist and author of Reproducing Jews: A Cultural Account of Assisted Conception in Israel. “Now you can never come to terms with it. There’s no resolution. Some of these women go through round after round, 12, 15 rounds of IVF, and it doesn’t work. That is the eclipse of an entire young life spent trying to get pregnant.”
This is a stark view of one downside of ART and is surely worth thinking about.
At the same time, the harvesting of gametes from those who die young (and generally childless) that is the taking off point for this article is clearly all about DNA. It’s a subset of all ART–ART driven solely by the need to preserve a genetic line.
In the end it is useful to think about ART generally and to also think about the specific forms of ART. It’s a complicated picture and I find the overview of ART use in Israel gives me much to think about.