Posthumous Sperm Harvest?: Where Attachment to DNA Will Lead Us

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.


11 responses to “Posthumous Sperm Harvest?: Where Attachment to DNA Will Lead Us

  1. If he did not bank his own sperm for this purpose its almost like raping him or something – in the abstract anyway. Its really not for those people to bring this child into the world this way and who would be the child’s mother? Would they take that away too? Would they then also use a gestational carrier to make sure the mother did not get attached or know when her baby was born? Yes too much attachment to DNA. I can see where its comming from though, they are trying to hang on to their baby, he was too young to die. They are looking for a way to make him live again. I ache for his parents. I really do actually. I lost my baby boy he never really got to live though, just an afternoon.

  2. Don’t try to claim this is where “attachment to DNA” will lead us! This is where gamete donation and ART will lead us! We’ve had attachment to DNA for a long-ass time, thousands of years, and it never led to this until people started freezing sperm and doing artificial insemination. Sheesh!

    Btw, a new paper from Margaret Somerville is up, in which she again calls for a ban on creating designer children and messing with the natural human origins of a child. She says:

    A child’s right to be conceived with a natural biological heritage is the most fundamental human right and should be recognized in lawix.
    Children have a right to be conceived from untampered-with biological origins, a right to be conceived from a natural sperm from one identified, living, adult man and a natural ovum from one identified, living, adult woman. Society should not be complicit in – that is, should not approve or fund – any procedure for the creation of a child, unless the procedure is consistent with the child’s right to a natural biological heritage.

    Note the “living” in there! That’s not in my proposal, nor is “identified”, because I am trying to keep my proposal from impacting anything that is currently done, in order to have a less complicated debate about it.

    • Surely demand for ART is driven in part by the attachment to DNA. Hence the popularity of things like ICSI. Additionally third party gametes are often used in combination with gametes from an intended parents–I’m thinking here of women who might use assisted insemination, men who use surrogates with their own sperm, couples who use gametes from one person and third-party gametes as the other half of the genetic contribution. In many of these cases, the attachment to DNA might be part of the driver–otherwise people might substitute adoption more willingly.

      I do not mean to suggest that the attachment to DNA is the only driver–but surely it is part of the picture. The recent story about using mitochondrial DNA from one woman and nuclear DNA from another–isn’t that an instance where you must be driven by an attachment to DNA? Otherwise why not just use the whole egg of the woman providing the mitochondrial DNA?

      • I didn’t deny that people had an attachment to DNA, I said that we’ve had an attachment to DNA for a long time, thousands of years. I said don’t blame posthumous sperm harvesting on attachment to DNA, blame it on sperm harvesting and ART. Consider attachment to DNA a given, something that is not going to go away, ever. And, it’s not a bad thing, in and of itself. ART is a bad thing, in and of itself, and ART is unsustainable and unethical and is going to go away fairly soon. Just one or two more natural disasters and it’ll be unceremoniously forgotten about.

        • I’m not sure whether you offer your statement on attachment to DNA going back for thousands of years as one of fact or opinion. I suppose it matters not–I disagree either way. I think our current belief that DNA tells us a great deal about who and what we are is just that–a current belief. I don’t mean that DNA is unimportant nor do I deny that there are inherited traits. But I think we’ve become particularly entranced with the idea that DNA is destiny in recent years.

          There’s a bit of self-fulfilling prophecy here, I suppose. If I believe DNA creates a unique and special bond, then knowing DNA connects us may well create a unique and special bond. What I’m suggesting is that if I didn’t believe that about DNA, it wouldn’t create the same kind of bond.

          • Oh, I agree that there is too much emphasis on “DNA as destiny” these days, as epitomized by Transhumanists who want to design the DNA of babies. I think that grossly underestimates social and environmental factors, to everyone’s detriment.

            What I am talking about is attachment to one’s progeny and honoring one’s mother and father. I thought that’s what you meant too. Respecting and celebrating the parent-child link, the idea that so-and-so is so-and-so’s son, goes back thousands of years, and by son, they certainly meant actual offspring, resulting from the marital union. They took adultery and marriage very seriously right at the start of civilization, in many respects it is the cornerstone of civilization. It mattered to them who descended from who, they had attachment to their progeny and their parents. Both of those attachments made it into the Ten Commandments, but they had already existed before that.

            17And Cain knew his wife; and she conceived, and bare Enoch: and he builded a city, and called the name of the city, after the name of his son, Enoch.

            18And unto Enoch was born Irad: and Irad begat Mehujael: and Mehujael begat Methusael: and Methusael begat Lamech.

            19And Lamech took unto him two wives: the name of the one was Adah, and the name of the other Zillah.

  3. Discussion about Somerville paper is going on over at FamilyScholars, but I got in a little trouble there and can no longer post comments. I’m dying to comment on that thread, it is unbelievable that Ampersand and jeffrey are pretending to have forgotten my proposal. I think ki sarita is going to make the point I want to make, though. The way I think Civil Unions should be defined is “marriage minus conception rights.” Congress should specify that definition in order for them to be recognized by the federal government as if they were marriages. And it should enact the Egg-of-woman and Sperm-of-man law as Somerville and I have been calling for (we can work out the details on deceased donors and identified donors later). And it should affirm that all marriages must be allowed and approved to conceive offspring from their own genes.

  4. Yeah but Margaret Sommerville is a bigot. I was all excited to read her paper because I thought I agreed with her and then she went off the rails and started kicking gays and lesbians in the teeth. I hate that. Certainly heterosexual couples should get equal teeth kicking time in her paper. I wish she’d take her campaign against same sex marriage off line and out of her comments about ART. I agree with the first half of what you said John but I’ll just never find it productive to talk about marriage being a determing factor in a person’s obligations to their children. Marriage obligates you to care for your stepchild on behalf of your spouse but only while your married. The two parents should never be off the hook, married, single, straight, Jewish, Catholic, etc.

    • I think she, like me, support Civil Unions for gay and lesbian couples. That’s hardly kicking them in the teeth. Same-sex couples should not be considered to have equal rights to conceive offspring together. Is that what you believe? Otherwise, saying they had equal rights would lead to children being born from engineered gametes and open the door to designer babies, and also would threaten natural reproductive rights of heterosexual marriages, who could be forced to use modified gametes and donor gametes.

      The only ethical way to create a person is through marital sexual intercourse, where both progenitors have consented and committed themselves to each other and to raising any offspring they might create. Intentionally creating a child is unethical, it results in children being thought of as property instead of as their own person, it turns the responsibility to care for the people we create into a hobby we might get sick of.

      Even though marriage is the only ethical way to create people, my proposal for Compromise with Civil Unions wouldn’t change anything about how people are conceived now, I purposely made my proposal leave all the ways gay and lesbian couples have children untouched, in order to limit the debate to as few issues as possible. But we could make the Egg and Sperm law prohibit anonymity, as Somerville calls for in her proposal. (So, you are wrong that she doesn’t go after hetero couples, her proposal would force them to use identified, living donors.) I do think we should prohibit donor conception completely, and not claim to have fixed it by eliminating anonymity, but I think that would be a hard battle and that’s why I don’t want to slow down achieving the Compromise, which would immediately benefit thousands of same-sex families.

  5. And while I’m at it John where do ya’ll get the idea that married people have some magical right to reproduce that single people don’t already have? The right to found a family is the right of two unrelated people to assume responsibility for each other, you know “head of household and dependent”, you know – a family in the boring legal sense of the word. A family that did not previously exist occurs when you get married and bridge two separate families via contract. Your entitled to each others stuff and whatnot. You do take responsiblility for spouses children even if those children are created before your marriage or during your marriage with or with out your consent. But the idea would be that responsibility to their child ends upon divorce unless of course that child is also your child in which case your responsibility continues independent of your relationship to your spouse. Like if a man cheats on his wife and his mistress slaps him with an order of support and he can’t pay it because he lost his job and he’s a drunk, his wife, the child’s stepmother would be having her wages attached to support her spouses child. Yup, she’s the step mom even though the child is born during her marriage to her spouse. There now how’s that for demonstrating that the marital presumption is abused by naming step parents as parents at birth.

    What are you talking about when you say that being married gives people the right to use their own genes to create their own children? Being a person makes you totally autonomous in the decision making process of the use of your own genes to create your own children. Marriage has nothing to do with it. If someone forces you to conceive children against your will by taking your sperm or your eggs without permission its beyond rape in my eyes

    • “And while I’m at it John where do ya’ll get the idea that married people have some magical right to reproduce that single people don’t already have?”

      My state has Fornication and Adultery laws. Even Justice Kennedy, in the Lawrence decision, acknowledged that marriage is, at minimum, “about the right to have sexual intercourse.” Yes, he was saying it demeans a couple to say that is all that their marriage is about, which is true: marriage is about more than “just” or “simply” that, but he clearly indicated what he understood the essence of marriage to be about.

      I do not think that unmarried people have a right to procreate or have sexual intercourse. It’s something society chooses not to prohibit, because we have decided that we like to be allowed to have sex without having to get married first, and we came up with some technology like the Pill and paternity tests and abortion and wage garnishment to mitigate some of the social problems that result from unmarried sex. The old ways of dealing with unmarried sex (illegitimacy laws, forced marriage, stoning, etc), had their own sets of problems. But even if we said that we have now made unmarried sex a right, we certainly did not change marriage or make sex and procreation within marriage any less of a right. That’s what matters! Marriage always has approved and affirmed and allowed sex and the creation of offspring. “The marriage bed is undefiled.”

      I not sure I agree that the husband and wife found a family just by themselves, as if just marrying satisfied the right to found a family. They form a marriage, not a family. They then each belong to each other’s families, but those families were already founded. Family implies children, the right to found a family implies a right to procreate offspring of the marriage. Note that it comes after the right to marriage, and is not called a separate right.

      Spouses are entitled to “each other’s stuff” because the marriage makes them one legal person, they both own all of their stuff together.

      “What are you talking about when you say that being married gives people the right to use their own genes to create their own children?”

      They shouldn’t be stripped of that right, which would mean they could be pressured or someday even legally forced to use modified or substitute genes instead of their own.

      “Being a person makes you totally autonomous in the decision making process of the use of your own genes to create your own children. Marriage has nothing to do with it.”

      Well, you hopefully agree that no one is allowed to create children with their sister or mother, or with a 12 year old, or with some other person’s wife or husband. We are certainly not totally autonomous to create other people however we want to. We shouldn’t be allowed to do it in unethical experiments, or with a dead person’s genes, or with an anonymous person’s genes (I thought you agreed on that last one). Yes, I think it is rape to use someone’s genes without their consent.

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